From Russia with Rocks (and a suitcase full of prezzies…)

IMAG0432I have just returned from my first trip to Russia and the Moscow and Borok Labs. There was originally supposed to be fieldwork in southern Siberia this Summer: sampling rocks with the hope they would tell us about the Earth’s magnetic field 400 million years ago. However, a few months back, we discovered that many of the targeted sections have already been studied by the Moscow group. The head of that lab – Vladimir Pavlov – invited me to visit to discuss the work and I gratefully accepted in lieu of the fieldwork. The decision to cancel the sampling trip seems to have been a good one – Vladimir’s colleague Andrey Shatsillo had been there numerous times already and had a stack of data to show me and a sack of samples for me to return with. He also provided samples from some very intriguing sills of a similar age that gave good directions but which were highly anomalous. Vladimir and Andrey shared their opinion that the magnetic field was in a very strange state at this time – an intriguing hypothesis ripe for testing with the equipment at Liverpool and Borok.


Tatyana and Valera in front of Moscow State University where they both graduated from.

In addition to discussing science in Moscow, I enjoyed a Georgian meal with Vladimir and a sightseeing tour given by Tatyana Gendler of the institute. I also gave a seminar in their grand lecture theatre which was translated, slide-by-slide, by Valera Shcherbakov, a rather famous scientist in our area who had come down from his lab in the town of Borok, 350 km to the north. After some sightseeing in Moscow, I accompanied Valera on an overnight train to Borok and spent the remaining 2 days of my trip there. In comparison to cosmopolitan Moscow, Borok and surrounding area felt like the Real Russia. Borok itself has only 2,000 inhabitants but a fascinating history as the only privately owned piece of land in communist Russia. The owner was rather qualified for this honour, a nobleman’s son who had endured 28 years of jail as a communist revolutionary under tsarist rule. In prison, he had developed an interest in the sciences. He founded a biological institute in Borok and other research centres, including a geomagnetic observatory, followed in the ensuing years. Valera and his wife Valentina have been doing research at the palaeomagnetic lab at Borok for 40 years and their group continues to be one of the most prolific in the world.

The Shcherbakov(a)'s

Valera and Valentina Shcherbakov(a)

I had never met Valentina Shcherbakova before but had read many of her papers. She had already measured samples from Devonian collections that I was interested in so we pooled data and discussed a further measurement plan. She provided me with still more samples so that we can compare data obtained using the different methods in place at Liverpool and Borok. Valentina and Valera were also extremely kind in showing me the local area and giving gifts. I told them about my wife’s wish that I return with a book of classic Russian literature (in Cyrillic script). I left with five including two children’s books for my son. Not only this, Valentina handed me a beautiful patchwork quilt she had made herself to give to Brigid. Overall, it was a wonderful trip and it was fortunate that I had arrived with my suitcase only half full!

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So is this it, are we all going to die?


ESA’s magnetic field mission Swarm
Image: ESA

Today’s (7/7/2014) Metro newspaper has a nice article in the Metrocosm section by Ben Gilliland entitled “Portends of magnetogeddon” . Apart from the slight alarmism, it’s (as usual with Ben) pretty good, and I’m pleased to see him talk up the magnetic field even more than I usually do! It seems to be driven by the current ESA satellite mission Swarm, which is measuring the near-Earth magnetic field with the best ever satellite instruments on three separate spacecraft, with a view to separating magnetic sources external to the Earth (like the sun, auroral currents, and the magnetosphere) and those internal (from the core, and from magnetised material at Earth’s surface).  However, much of the article is focussed on more general information, such as magnetic reversals (well known to readers of this blog!) and the possible effects of weakening of the field. That the field is dropping in magnitude is not a new result – we’ve known this for a century or so, and now have evidence that this has been happening for at least 400 years (and probably longer) but it gets a lot of publicity every time we have new measurements – I remember something similar happening when the Ørsted mission was launched in 1999. There was a nice documentary on this over 10 years ago, joint between WGBH Nova for PBS in America, and Channel 4 in the UK called “Magnetic Storm” (“Magnetic flip” in the UK) from which most of the information is still accurate. If you are interested, you can find it online. The issue is that the magnetic field provides us with a shield from harmful solar and cosmic radiation, and so if it weakens (and potentially reverses), this shield would be weakened. However, the answer to the initial question is

Don’t Panic!

(Readers of a certain age may recognise the source of both this response and the slight misquote of the title…..) The answer from the documentary is that the field will weaken, but not completely disappear, it isn’t going to happen for the next 1000 years or so if it does then, and even if it does, the protective measures required will be not to lie on the beach in Florida, and to wear a large floppy hat!

Whether the field is reversing is not known, and (to an extent) not knowable. We have models made from observational data and palaeomagnetic measurements (some created here at Liverpool) which show that in the last 10,000 years, the magnetic field has both decayed more rapidly than it is at present, and been substantially weaker than it is now, but then recovered. Therefore, the current fall in the magnetic field could be simply part of its normal variation. Things are a little more complicated, as there is a strong and growing feature of the “wrong” polarity at the surface of the Earth’s core under the South Atlantic, giving rise to the weaker area of field that we see as the “South Atlantic Anomaly” – which causes occasional havoc in the instruments of satellites flying overhead. This feature could be a signature of a major change in the field, but it could also simply reflect rearrangement of magnetic field at the core – if this becomes more complicated, it could look weaker from the surface without the field itself actually getting any weaker.

What Swarm is really for is getting a much more detailed picture of small-scale structures in the magnetic field, and its rapid changes on time scales of years – so magnetic “weather”, rather than the “climate” of a field reversal. Hopefully, this will give us a much better idea of these smaller variations – my interest is particularly in comparing these variations with changes in Earth rotation.  If this work is successful, we may yet also have something to say about the longer term decline in the field, although I can guarantee that this won’t affect anyone for many lifetimes to come!


Richard Holme

Today’s post was guest written by Richard Holme.   Richard Holme is Professor of Geomagnetism at the University of Liverpool. His research interests are in the behaviour of the magnetic fields of the Earth and other planets on timescales of milliseconds to billions of years, and variations in Earth rotation and their link to Earth’s core. He is involved with the ESA geomagnetic mission Swarm, is looking forward to July 2016 for Juno to arrive at Jupiter, 2017 for Cassini to begin close orbits of Saturn, and 2033 (?!) for the arrival of Juice at Ganymede.

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New paper in G-Cubed to improve consistency in measurements of the ancient magnetic field strength

Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems (G3 or G-Cubed) is an online-only journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). It’s format means it is perfect for publishing papers with large supplementary information or appendices. That is definitely the case for this latest publication, lead-authored by Greig Paterson – a Scotsman in Beijing.

Measurements of the strength of the ancient magnetic field recorded in rocks  or archaeological materials (“palaeointensity” or “archaeointensity” measurements) can be very tricky to make. It would therefore be very useful to have some agreement amongst those people doing these experiments about what a reliable measurement looks like.  However, for one reason or another, such consensus has eluded the community for decades. This paper, we hope, is a step towards rectifying that. It uses the largest ever compilation of palaeointensity measurements made using only materials for which we know what the answer “is” (e.g. from lavas that cooled in recent times during which the magnetic field strength is independently known from observatory data). It then finds variants of currently used selection criteria that are better at picking out the reliable measurements than the originals. This stuff may not sound to the outsider as exciting as say, finding a new reversal, but it is the type of thing that underpins palaeomagnetism as a tool for understanding our planet better.

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What is Archaeomagnetism?

Philippe and Valerie taking samples from an archaeolgoical site in France

Philippe and Valerie taking archaeomagnetic samples from a Roman aged achaeological site in France

For regular readers of this blog, the term “archaeomagnetism” will have been seen a number of times, most frequently in posts by me or Andy Herries!

Archaeomagnetism is the study of burnt material found on archaeological sites. This can include everything from hearths, fireplaces and kilns through to tiles, bricks and pottery. Basically anything that has been subjected to heat at some point, either deliberately (e.g. the firing of a pot) or accidently (e.g. if a fire burns down a building, its foundations and walls become suitable for archaeomagnetic study as a consequence).

In certain parts of the world (for specific time periods), it is possible to date archaeological samples by comparing the declination, inclination and intensity values recorded in the archaeomagnetic samples (these 3 values describe the geomagnetic field vector) with the known changes in the geomagnetic field. One of the great things about archaeomagnetism (in my opinion) is the variety of ways in which you can use it. Associate Professor at Liverpool, Andy Herries, focuses on dating Hominid sites in South Africa by dating speolotherms (speolotherms are also known as flow stones and are created through the deposition of carbonate through time. Stalactites and stalagmites form in the same way.) see   It is worth noting that in speoltherms the record of the magnetic field is preserved as a chemical remanant magnetisation rather than a thermal remament magnetisation.

I myself am focused on trying to gather well-dated archeointensity data from Turkey for the dual purpose of enabling archaeomagnetic dating in the future as well as allowing us to accurately reconstruct changes in the geomagnetic field. This work is very interesting because there have been a number of recent papers linking sudden changes in the magnetic field with climate change and civilisation collapse e.g.  I’m investigating whether I can see any evidence for this.

In this post I have only briefly mentioned some of the applications of archaeomagnetism: it is a fascinating field with new methods and ideas being tested every day.

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Killer LIPs? Not so fast…

Certain mass extinction events, including the largest ever 250 million years ago, have been argued to have been triggered by the eruption of “large igneous provinces” (LIPs) – humongous plateaux comprising stacks of lava flows that erupted in relatively short amounts of time.

But how short a time? This is a crucial question as the atmosphere and oceans are pretty effective at processing the gases associated with volcanic eruptions in the short to medium term. So, unless the eruptions occur very close together (i.e. just years apart), there is not really much scope for them causing the kind of long term climate change that can wipe out large fractions of life.

Here at Liverpool, we just published a paper outlining a new tool for getting a handle on eruption rates based on the similarity of the magnetic field direction recorded in cooled lava flows that are on top of one another. The logic goes:

– the Earth’s magnetic field is changing direction all the time (which is why you have to change the declination on your compass every few years)

– when magma erupts and then cools, the magnetic minerals in the newly formed rock lock in a record of this direction

– if neighbouring lavas erupted within a few years of one another then the magnetic field direction will not have changed very much so the directions recorded in them will be quite similar.

This is not a new idea but the paper presents and tests a new parameter for formally quantifying the degree of this “next neighbour correlation”. The new parameter was shown to be an improvement over existing methods and its application to lavas from the  60 million year old “North Atlantic LIP” gave some quite surprising results. There was already independent evidence showing, that in one section of this large igneous province, there were pauses between eruptions that were, on average, several tens of thousands of years  long. Unexpectedly, significant similarity was observed in magnetic directions measured in neighbouring lavas from this section.

Records of palaeomagnetic strength fluctuations over millions of years have already hinted that the magnetic field displays some “correlation” over hundreds of thousands of years (that is, it may be consistently stronger or weaker on average during one period lasting a few hundreds of thousands of years that during another similarly long period). Our new study reports the first evidence that similar “correlation” may be present in the magnetic field direction as well.

Why is this important? Well, in addition to telling us more about the process that generates the Earth’s magnetic field, it also tells us we need to be careful in making the argument that similar palaeomagnetic directions in adjacent lava flows imply very fast eruption rates (as has been done previously). They may not and, with this requirement for rapid lava extrusion reduced, some of the lethality of the “killer LIPs” could be drawn into question too.

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A round-up of some newsworthy geomagnetism stories

This article was originally posted on the EGU Blog network for Geology Jenga.

Happy New Year to you all!

The past few weeks and months have seen some exciting newsworthy stories regarding the Earth’s magnetic field. I thought I’d highlight a few of them for our first post of the New Year.

Magnetic Interactions 2014

For two days in early January, all of us at the Geomag Lab (well, pretty well all of us) travelled to Cambridge University, to attend the UK conference for the geomagnetism community. This year there was also a strong international presence. I would usually write a blog post on the highlights of the research that was being showcased at the conference; however, the meeting organisers beat me to it! Read about the science behind fundamental, applied rock and mineral magnetism, as well as, how an ancient voyage by naturalist Alexander von Humboldt might help us understand the geomagnetic field prior to the 1800s  in this blog post by Dr. Richard Harrison, of Cambridge University.

Logo courtesy of Richard Harrison.

Logo courtesy of Richard Harrison.


The Aurora that never was.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user: United States Air Force, This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user: United States Air Force, This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

On 7th January, there was a large solar flare with an associated fast traveling Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), which was headed straight for the Earth, and was expected to hit our planet by the 9th of January. Space weather scientists, the media and people across the UK and Europe were glued to the night skies in hopes of seeing aurora borealis at abnormally southerly latitudes. Perhaps the excitement surrounding the potential to observe these mysterious phenomena was fueled, at least in the UK, by the timely airing of the first episode of the new series of Star Gazing Live, in which the team (made up of Prof. Brian Cox and comedian Dara O’Brien) took on the challenge to capture the northern lights.

Space weather has featured heavily in the UK media in the run up to the Christmas, as the UK government pledged a £4.6 million investment in the forecast of space weather. From early this year, the Met Office will forecast, deliver alerts and warnings to key sectors that might be adversely affected by  solar flares and CMEs.

Despite the hype, the skies did not deliver. A great blog post by Dr Gemma Kelly, at the geomagnetism team of the British Geological Survey, explains the reasons behind why the Northern lights didn’t quite happen!

For more information on solar flares, CMEs and why they are important: have a look at my guest blog post for GeoSphere on the Earth’s protective shield and also the information pages of the British Geological Survey.


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The magnetic field is fluctuating as it falls…

We just published a new paper lead-authored by Lennart de Groot at Utrecht University who just recently got his PhD “Cum Laude” (quite a distinction).

The paper is online here and I’ve tried to summarise it below.

The Earth’s magnetic field as seen at Earth’s surface is about 90% explained by a “dipole” – a single north pole opposite a single south pole – the same as a bar magnet. The dipole is not stationary but moves around and fluctuates in intensity over time. Occasionally it collapses altogether and grows back with the opposite polarity – this is called a geomagnetic reversal. The last reversal happened 780,000 years ago but there have been many more recent collapses (“geomagnetic excursions”) that haven’t resulted in reversals.

Two of the authors - Lennart and Mark on the top of Mt Etna in 2008.

Two of the authors – Lennart and Mark on the top of Mt Etna in 2008.

The dipole has been weakening steadily (nearly 10%) since the first measurements began in 1840 AD causing some to speculate that we might be heading for a new collapse which would be bad news as magnetic storms might then become more severe. To understand this recent decline, we need to put it in context of magnetic field behaviour before 1840 and for this we have to turn to “accidental” records. The best of these are preserved in baked archaeological materials (e.g. pottery and kiln linings) but these are restricted to locations where complex civilizations existed and this leaves large areas of the globe undocumented.

Records are also preserved in volcanic rocks that have cooled from magma but these are generally much noisier than the archaeological ones because the lavas have less ideal magnetic properties than do pottery. Our study has managed to use a combination of new and old methods to produce a new high quality record from Hawaiian lavas informing us about the behaviour of the field in the sparsely populated Pacific region from around 500 AD to the present.

Combining this new record with other high quality records from archaeological materials recovered from W Europe, Japan, SW USA produces an interesting picture (see figure). As already thought, the recent decline appears to be a continuation of a declining trend going on at least 1,000 year. However, as well as this decline there are also periods of sharply increased intensity in 3 of the records (Hawaii, W Europe, SW USA) but crucially these are at different times in different places (and there is no such peak in Japan). These fluctuations, though large, can’t be explained by the dominant dipole part of the magnetic field as then you would see them everywhere. They must rather be due to the non-dipole field becoming regionally very important in a way that we have not seen since we have been making deliberate records.

Records of the estimated strengh of the main "axial dipole" component of the magnetic field from different locations

Records of the estimated strengh of the main “axial dipole” component of the magnetic field from different locations

The magnetic field is generated by the flow of electrically conducting liquid in the Earth’s outer core and all of these changes reflect the chaotic nature of this flow. In addition to producing records such as these, the challenge lies in producing believable models of core flow to explain the observational data. This might eventually be useful to help predict future magnetic field behaviour.

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Magnetic Personalities – Analysing palaeointensity data

At the latest magnetic personalities meeting we looked at a paper by Ron Shaar and Lisa Tauxe named ‘Thellier GUI: An integrated tool for analysing palaeointensity data from Thellier type experiments’ published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems. I chose this paper as it has direct relevance to the laboratory at Liverpool where we carry out much palaeointensity research.
As with many disciplines in science there is debate over the best methods of analysing data. Ideally there would be a format giving rise to objective results that could be reproducible and correlated between laboratories. Unfortunately this is not the case in the world of palaeointensity study. A plethora of Thellier style palaeointensity methods and analysis make it difficult to correlate across studies. The main issues highlighted by the authors are the subjective nature of manual palaeointensity analyses, that it is very time consuming and that unless the raw data is published the results are not reproducible.

The paper uses two case studies, one from an Iron Age copper slag and another of submarine basaltic glass from a DSDP/ODP cores spanning 160Ma to illustrate how manual interpretation leads to different conclusions dependent on which criteria are selected.

The Thellier GUI integrated tool for palaeointensity analysis is designed to isolate the criteria of most importance during analyses at the specimen and sample stages. It incorporates two new tools, the ‘Auto Interpreter’ and the ‘Thellier Consistency Test’. New statistics include FRAC, a fraction statistic and a new scatter statistic amalgamating all scatter including pTRM and tail checks called SCAT, and finally GAP-MAX an upper limit for the gap between data points in an Arai plot. Sample level palaeointensity values are then calculated using an optimised standard deviation statistic and simple and parametric bootstrap methods.

Snapshot of GUI main screen

Snapshot of GUI main screen

We unanimously agree there should be more uniformity in this field and hopefully this tool will go some way towards this. Uniformity of methods and analysis would greatly benefit our models of magnetic field behaviour where correlation of worldwide studies is paramount. We look forward to applying this approach to our own data sets. Work is also underway to integrate the Liverpool Palaeomagnetic Database with the MagIC database to encourage the standardisation of data format and consistency of analyses.


Shaar, R, & Tauxe, L. (2013), ‘Thellier GUI: An integrated tool for analyzing paleointensity data from Thellier-type experiments’, Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems, 14, 3, pp. 677-692

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NERC Young Entrepreneurship Competition

Last week, Megan and I were away in Oxford taking part in a National Environmental Research Council (NERC) sponsored young entrepreneurs competition. The competition is called, EnvironmentYES! (Think Dragon’s Den!).environment-yes In the competition, teams of early-career researchers (PhD students and post-dcos) attend a three-day workshop where they are given training and guidance on innovation and how to commercialise research. At the end of the three-day workshop, teams present and pitch their ideas for an imaginary environmental start-up company in competition with each other. The winning teams from each workshop are invited to a final where they compete for a prize of £2500.

Meet the team! Steve, Laura, Megan and Lidong (L-R).

Meet the team! Steve, Laura, Megan and Lidong (L-R).

Megan and I are part of a four person team taking part in the competition. One of our fellow PhD students in the school, Steve Hicks, approached us towards the end of the summer, to see if we fancied having a go at the competition. We both agreed to do it as it was an opportunity to learn about the business world, which we knew little about.  Lidong Bie decided to join our team, and so we could get to work! This kick started a few months of preparation for the workshop in Oxford last week.

The first thing we had to do was decide what our product was going to be. We had LOTS of ideas: some quite sensible, whilst others where a little out there. Eventually, we managed to narrow it down to three ideas: using pea straw for the remediation of contaminated land, developing a service to monitor seismicity associated with fracking activities and the monitoring of air quality by measuring magnetic particles on tree leaves. Two of our ideas were based on already published research, which you can read all about here and here.  As it is a business competition, we had to assign ourselves roles within the management of our fictitious company. Steve took on the role of CEO, Lidong became our finance man, Megan is in charge of marketing, whilst I am our research and development officer (i.e, I’m in charge of the science).

Steve approached The University Graduate School, Management School and Technology Transfer Services, all of whom have provided us with lots of help in preparing for the competition. During our first meeting with them, we ‘pitched’ our three ideas (note how I am already slipping into my newly acquired business and commercial vocabulary). When starting a business, as we quickly found out, the idea is important, but not as important as identifying who has a need for the product/service you are offering, i.e. what and who make your market? This was something we thought about a lot when deciding which idea to go with. With the fracking and air quality monitoring ideas we just couldn’t really see who would buy our services/products and so in the end, we settled with remediating contaminated land using pea straw; and so team TERGEO was born.

Our company Logo

Our company Logo

Having chosen our idea we had to formulate it into a viable, appealing and realistic business proposition. I got on with really understanding the science behind the idea and explained to the team how the world of environmental consultancy worked (as I worked as a consultant before I started my PhD). Megan worked hard on identifying who are customers and competition would be. Lidong had the arduous task of getting to grips with endless financial spread sheets and costing up both our site works and overall business running costs. Steve coordinated all the work and researched how we could ‘protect our idea’. Intellectual property and how you can protect ideas, products and know how is fascinating and at the same time, extremely complex.

All our hard work culminated last week, when we attended the workshop in Oxford. The first two days were dedicated to learning more about how to set-up your own business, receiving help and support from a wide range of mentors and hearing from people who have actually gone on to set up their own company (some as a result of participating in the competition). The final day of the workshop saw all the teams go up against each other in front of a panel of ‘investors’. We had to deliver 15 minute business presentations, to compete for the judge’s investment in our company. Our team was put into the first stream (of two), and we competed against five other teams. Some of the ideas pitched by other teams were incredibly interesting: tents with built in solar panels, an app that worked out what the most eco-friendly products available in a supermarket are, a chip that monitors your UV exposure, a  pressure driven turbine that generates power from the main water supply and a solar panel with a kick!  Teams fielded questions from the investors really well and people were so enthusiastic about their idea and business!

The judges verdict was announced at 3pm on Friday afternoon, to a room packed full of expectant participants and mentors. Team TERGEO are super excited to announce that we made it through the regional finals and are now on our way to Grand Final in London on 2nd December! Watch this space!



We couldn’t have got as far as we did in the competition without the help of our mentors. So a big thank you to:

Dr. Dale Heywood, Director of Entrepreneurship studies at the University of Liverpool

Dr. Richard Hinchcliffe, Head of Postgraduate Development at the University of Liverpool.

Dr.Lisa Ahmead, Partnerships and Innovation, Business Gateway, University of Liverpool

Andrew Bowen, ISIS Innovation

Luca Guerzoni, Esperimenta

Becky Herbert, Alan Garmonsway, Emma Faldon, The Pirbright Institute

Bevan McWilliam, RVC Enterprise

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SWARM launch 14th November 2013

SWARM is a long awaited ESA satelite mission to measure the geomagnetic field using magnetometers deployed on three separate but identical satelites.

They have a nice blog showing the build-up to the launch and with links to the mission details:

It has been a long time coming…


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