29 September 2011

Where hydrology meets mud

How do you distinguish a hydrologist from a mine explorer? The former would think that if you make the effort of going to DGC you might as well add a little trip to a nearby river. The latter would think that if you make the effort of going to DGC you might as well add a little trip to a nearby mine. And given that we were one of each we just did both.

After Hugh the hydrologist and I had enjoyed Rick’s tour of Devon Great Consols at the surface we went to the Tamar, as Hugh had a sampling station there he wanted to check. And luckily so, as lots of rainfall had, probably by sweeping away large chunky objects that can bump into things, almost removed one of his sampling tubes. But he had come prepared with waders, and no time later this issue was resolved! And it was good I got an idea of what his fieldwork encompasses, for I expect to be called upon for field assistance soon.

Hugh tending to a sampling tube

I figured that a bloke studying pollution due to mining activities should see a mine from the inside, and there was one very close by. So I informed Hugh of the expected water levels, and down we clambered, and into the dark we vanished! I hadn’t brought more than my helmet and my caving boots; it’s not a very wet mine and I had not bothered to load up my full kit into bicycle bags. What didn’t fit into my bag would have to stay at home. Hugh had waders with him, but was too tough to don them, and just sacrificed the wellbeing of his trousers and boots to science.

Hugh with clean jacket and filthy trousers in the furthest part of the mine

We travelled the width and breadth of this modest mine, and I pointed out the staining on the walls, which undoubtedly contained high levels of whatever he was interested in, and would probably leak quite some of that into the mine water, which drains straight into the Tamar. It was good to see this mine again, which I had only seen once, almost two years ago. And for Hugh it was an entirely new experience.

Doesn't my jacket look good with these stainings!

When we came out, all orange from the knee down, we washed the worst off in the Tamar (ha! more pollution!), and managed to get us back within the limits of social acceptability. We tested this by going to the pub, and being allowed in, and thus ended a day of splendid mine exploration mixed with science. Two birds with one stone! Or maybe even three, if you count the pub…

ps I hope I will one day figure out why this blog sometimes uses small font without my consent. Even specifying "12pt" in HTML doesn't help! Grmbl...

28 September 2011

DGC ex machina

The ivory tower is being corroded away by contaminated mine water! I already spoke of one of the newest acquisition of our school: Hugh the Australian postdoc. One may guess he’s here not only for ogling cricket. And indeed: his core activity concerns studying pollution due to mining activities in the Tamar Valley. And an observant reader might have noticed I greatly enjoy wallowing in exactly these pollutants. So I might have a thing or two to show him!

I like immersing myself in corrosive gloop, but I acknowledge that the monarch of ochre is not me but Rick, so when Rick would give a talk about something having to do with mining I dragged Hugh along. If he could plug into the knowledge of not only Rick, but also the other very knowledgeable members of the audience such as Dave, he would gain massively from that.

Listening to a talk is one thing, but getting deep down & dirty and close to science is better, so he’d decided to wander around on the surface on Devon Great Consols on the Sunday. And on that very surface I had imbibed Rick’s limitless knowledge in May, so I volunteered to come along and find out how much I would be able to remember of that walk, perhaps festooning my elaborations with anecdotes of underground DGC exploits. So on a reasonably beautiful morning we turned onto the old dressing floor, nowadays mostly in use as parking lot. There were some cars there already; my eye was caught by one which looked quite like Rick’s. And then my eye was caught by what could be no other than Rick himself. Who would have thought!

Rick seemed to be waiting for something. I jumped out of the car and soon found out we had, entirely accidentally, come just in time for Rick doing just that guided tour again, yet to a different audience. Fate gave us a huge bonus! We rejoiced in such an unbelievable chance.

One may assume that such a tour done twice is boring, but that assumption does not take into consideration the undeniable eloquence of our host, and the ever-increasing amount of knowledge he possesses. There were features along the way he hadn’t discovered yet the previous time, there were those he didn’t understand the previous time while now he did, there were features he had described as unique but now found more of, and features he now understood better. So we quaffed the information-by-the-bucket and had a good time. Hugh especially drooled and swooned at evident accumulations of pollutants and streams probably taking these to the Tamar. Where his sampling stations were gobbling it all up!

Rick looking erudite next to a pristine "DGC" inscription

Two of the other participants: Ian, one of the technicians in chemistry, and his very charming dog

One of the buildings on site had been restored in a somewhat questionable way, but I was taken by the charming detail of the rusty kettle

I also took the opportunity to dive into two small tunnels in an enormous pile of arsenic-laden mine waste. Perhaps not the wisest places to reside but I really couldn’t resist. They are pretty on the inside! And after the ball mill and the arsenic works the fun came to an end. Hugh wanted to check one of his stations, and I wanted to show him a conveniently nearby and easily accessible mine from the inside, so we moved on. Watch this space for reports on these exploits!

The entrance to one of the tunnels in the waste heap

The view from the waste heap

On the inside, looking out. Notice this tunnel isn't supported at all!

Maybe this is what keeps the sediment together: crystallisation! Would it be arsenic?

Hugh in the second tunnel, which was wet but supported

The arsenic works in the afternoon sun

If the whole of Hugh’s project is as blessed as this day was his career is now on a one way track to Nature publications and professorships. We’ll see!

27 September 2011

Drink yourself happy

Ha! I'll have me another one...

Students on the Tamar

Campus had been an oasis of piece and quiet for months. But that wouldn't last...

Like an invading army the first year students engulfed the university. If you walk over campus now you have to slalom your way past the socialising youngsters. It's good students tend to be too lazy to use the stairs, for otherwise there would be the huge risk of ending up behind some young men whose sense of fashion would force them to wear their trousers at the approximate altitude of their knees. I think I'm officially a grumpy old woman, for I really can't get used to that sartorial offence.

Even in a year which is the last one before tuition fees are raised to the legal maximum it is important to give these up-and-coming academics a warm welcome. Next year we hope to still get some, in spite of the £9000, and a record of lots of students dropping out wouldn't help with that. And it's of course just the right thing to do. That first week will probably resonate right through the entire rest of their lives. It had better be good!

Induction week ended with a boat trip on the Plym and the Tamar, and Paul had asked me to join, so I did. One of the lecturers in human geography grabbed the microphone and provided a continuous erudite commentary on everything we sailed past. I don't think the students were listening, but I enjoyed it. I want that chap on the back of my bike, commenting on everything I bike past!

The boat leaves downtown Plymouth and Paul, the organiser, looks relaxed.

I've never been this close to this, eh, thing!

The waterfront holds some nice architecture

The roofed slipway I only glanced during the Devonport walk. Now I could see in!

The Tamar Bridge in dramatic lighting

Whether they listened to the commentary or not, the students were treated to a nice boat trip in splendid weather, and a view on Plymouth from a less usual angle. And so was I. It was, in a way, the boat trip with Neil, but then with less testosterone and more human geography. And, in a way, also the water-borne version of the recent Devonport walk. A nice change from a hard week in the lab. And I won't be teaching these students, but it may be good to get to meet them anyway. I hope they're still there by the time I have to help Roland teach them about sea level change! And it provided me with a nice insight into their world (so different from mine!); I pointed out the citadel; a beautiful relic from the civil war, and they said "we know that place; there was a dubstep party there!"

21 September 2011

No escape from the lab

All was going smooth; the radiocarbon lab was doing our 14C measurements, one of the lab technicians was working on pollen counts on my sediments, and I could focus on my beloved foraminifera. How long do you think such a situation can persist? No, not very long indeed.


We got a message from the radiocarbon lab; something had gone wrong with three of my samples. Whether I could perhaps send replacements...

We got a message from our good old collaborator Rob: he wanted to do our pollen analyses. It turned out our technician had hardly started with these, so we happily tranferered that job to Rob. But that did mean I had to send him samples. And only our Connecticut core already consiusts of 200 samples I had to subsample.

One can imagine how fast I get through these forams counts this way. But then again; I claim sometimes one of my stronger scientific merits is sheer doggedness. So I'll just plough on. The evening is still young...

19 September 2011

Staying alive

If a wall or a false floor collapses underground that may be certain death. It’s best not to provoke such structures, but the inherent disequilibrium of mines can be enough provocation. All you can do is be sensible and hope for the best.

If your rope climbing or descending gear fails that can also easily lead to death. But that’s easier to avoid! I am sloppy by nature, but I am trying to better myself, and while the news on the radio still went on about the four unfortunate Welsh miners I gave my rope ascenders some care. We’re all going to die, but I’ll try not to do that prematurely or avoidably!

18 September 2011

The lab is mine!

Feeling the need to work when you could be caving is not really a good thing, but when it happens you are best off making the most of it. I arrived in the lab on Saturday, intent on finding out how deep in one of my cores the forams would disappear, and to get a batch of samples ready for organic carbon content measurement.
An empty microscope lab on a Saturday

The first thing I did was turn on the radio, really loud, on BBC 6 Music. And then I got my samples out. I had come with the intention to sieve, split, microscope, weigh, dry and burn. That would see me in three of the four labs on the 8th floor. Shamelessly I spread my stuff out over acres and used all facilities at the same time. All labs were mine. Opulence!

A ditto wet lab

I got quite some work done. And on Sunday I was back for more organic carbon content work. And this time I had to pop over to the office to check something, and when I got back I had lost my monopoly; Rob was there too. And even though that meant the radio had been mercilessly changed to some useless R&B station it was still a good thing! One can’t have enough Robs. And by sacrificing the weekend I now think I can finish both the carbon work and the microfossil counts of that specific core this week. That’ll make me feel better!

17 September 2011

Looking good on the Hoe

Would I really be on my way to Wales when half the university would be prancing around in tuxedoes? No, of course not. Plymouth University (formerly known as the University of Plymouth; you can see why they decided to raise tuition fees to the absolute maximum. They need to pay for such ludicrous name changes!) tries to sell itself as “the enterprise university” and they hand out enterprise awards every year. And they do that during a glamorous ceremony on the Hoe. One that I would not be able to attend as I would be off to Wales. But then I got too busy and dropped out.

Roland had mentioned he would go; he was nominated for the “World Class Research Award”. How that would be enterprising is everybody’s guess, but I would be the last person to dispute the nomination. So he would have to dress up smart and, by his own guess, go there to applaud at someone else actually winning. And I regretted not being around to lie in in the bushes as a paparazzo and enjoy the tuxedo.

From the Plymouth University website: Roland the nominee!

Then it was the actual day. Having decided not to go all the way to North Wales (expected drive time: 7 hours) I was in the lab, when at ~17:20 I got a phone call. From Roland. He said he was about to leave home, tuxedo and all, but he didn’t have a bow tie. The ceremony would start at 18:00. So he wondered if I had one. Me? A bow tie? Try again! But I do have a bicycle, so I just asked Richard the lab technician, who was the nearest bloke, and fortunately one that had lived in Plymouth long enough to know where you can buy what, where I should go. I’ve never even seen him in a tie, but he did know. So ten minutes later I was in the M&S buying a most splendid specimen…

I was at the Hoe, under the scrutinizing glance of Francis Drake, in good time. No sign though of Roland and slightly pregnant Maria. Time ticked and ticked. I did see, to my enjoyment, lots of other people in their finest parade past. Then the music in the marquee already started. Somewhere after 6 I finally saw two familiar shapes...

Drake looking serious near the entrance of the marquee

Roland told me they were asked to arrive between 18:00 and 18:30, so they weren’t really late. Maria bent over her substantial 8.7 months belly and put the tie where it belonged. Now they were ready for the ceremony! They looked splendid.

Aren't they beautiful (all three of them!)

On the way back to the institute I saw the dean and the head of school get out of a cab; also in tuxedoes. And reaching the office building I bumped into one of our PhD students who was not only nominated for Student of the Year but also for Postgraduate Research Student of the Year. What a man! And wearing a tuxedo as well, of course. He was hardly in a hurry as he was even more convinced than Roland he wouldn’t actually win.

From the Plymouth University website: Andrew the double nominee!

Maybe this was Fate having mercy on me for missing out on a caving weekend. Men in tuxedoes don’t make up for that, but it does help!

PS they unfortunately were right - they didn't win. Too bad!

15 September 2011

Cave rescue in the news

I didn't realise I was involved in something this topical! True; in May one of our cave rescue practices turned into a real rescue, and in July there was a real proper call-out due to a bloke who broke his leg in Pridhamsleigh Cavern (which I could not respond to as I was in Switzerland), but that was in both cases something that just involved one victim who never was in a life-threatening situation. Both events were therefore only covered by local newspapers and concomitant websites. But today I just had a look at the BBC website to stay in touch with what happens in the world, and there was an article on an underground accident in Wales that was so serious it was on the front page. Seven guys and a coal mine, water coming from somewhere, three guys getting out but one in such a state he was rushed off to hospital, and the other four still trapped while I write this. Blimey! I hope they get the chaps out soon...

How thisissouthdevon.co.uk reported on the practice gone wrong (link in text above)

How thisissouthdevon.co.uk reported on the rescue of the chap with the broken leg (link in text above)

And the BBC on the case in Wales (link in text above)

PS By now they have all been found dead - a very sad outcome! I wish all bereaved lots of strength.

Dramatic skies

In December I should finish the last article derived from my thesis. Next week I should work on the last manuscript I'm first author on from my Norwegian job. Now I should be working on the second last manuscript I'm first author on from my Norwegian job. And all the while I should do this tonne of lab work that's looming menacingly above me. One can imagine I went into workaholic mode. I keep skipping caving trips, and even skipped a whole caving weekend in Wales. I just work. It's the only way of getting through this.

It's hard. But it does have perks: if you go home late at this time of year you can catch some spectacular skies. These are the results from Monday and Tuesday...

14 September 2011

Cave rescue, not only for humans

After catching up for half an hour with two of our quite eastern cavers, for whom quite many of our trips are far away, without seeing any other of our club, I started to believe this trip may be a hoax. And when neither Dave nor Lionel answered their phones that belief got stronger. But it wasn’t! The three other cars were populated by people who don’t read the emails giving information, and had parked at the wrong place. So quite some time later we all kitted up after all, and started the beautiful walk across the moors, and through long stretches of hardly traversable heathland, to the mine shaft of our preference.
Bold cavers in the rolling hills

Notice the ruin of the mine-related building where the sheep are lying!

We got to the very overgrown shaft, rigged it, and went down. It was a shaft leading to a very narrow lode, which we descended on a rope too. Lionel was first (surprise!), and soon announced we had an unexpected host: an adder! I had never seen one in the UK, so I enjoyed his (or her) beauty. It was a youngster, so I wasn’t afraid it would have anything on us. It probably was afraid we were more of a threat on it. Which was true. It decided to ceaselessly stare menacingly at Lionel while we sorted ourselves out in that narrow passage.
The first descent

The lode-with-narrow-passage-above the first descent lead to

Lionel going down the second descent. Above three pics by Dave

And what he found down there!

It was a pretty bugger. It's staring at Lionel when I take this pic. Before and after as well...

After the double descent we had unfortunately run out of rope, which made the descent of a next drop somewhat tricky, but we managed. Just tie some cow tails and belay belts together, make sure some tough guy holds onto the end, and Bob's your uncle. Even though on the way back up I ended up being the tough guy for Lionel! Luckily I pulled it off. And then the only way was into the water. I was the only one who felt like that, so I climbed and then swam across, climbed over a collapse, swam a short second stretch, and came to a dead end. When I came back the rest had already started to come back up. There was no more sign of the adder.

Lionel and Steve in the narrow passage

When we were all up it turned out that one of the men had decided a mine is not a place for a snake: it’s not warm enough, and there’s nothing to eat, except perhaps the odd caver, but they can be a bugger to catch. The guy had carefully put the snake in his tackle bag, taken it up the shaft, and released it on a nicely warm tree stump, where it spent its time hissing at Dave, who tried to take a picture of it. And then it was time to go to the pub. This had been a long anticipated trip, and one guy had even come from deep down Cornwall for this... It turned out as one of the shortest SRT trips we’d ever done. Oh well. At least we probably saved a hapless serpent's life!

The pub overlooking the Moors

13 September 2011


I had been cornered in the corridors of the university by two men who said that York was beautiful, that history had shown I don’t get there very often, and that given that I now had to go there for a conference I really HAD to run away for half a day and explore the shameless beauty of the old centre. And there sure was something to say for that. However, I have already pointed out what the temporal and personal dimensions of this conference were. You can’t run away for half a day if that is 25% of the conference. And part of the use of a conference is also the networking, and that costs time as well. I would just see if I would get any opportunity to see any of it...


The first night of the conference wasn't even spent anywhere near York. Antony, our co-PI and a co-organiser of the conference, had invited the whole Plymouth and Durham contingent to his place for dinner. He lived in some village where it still really gets dark at night. So the conference started with beer, wine, chilli and networking in a beautiful old house in the Yorkshire countryside. A great start! And he even put all that had accepted the invitation up for the night.

The next day there was just time for checking into the hotel between the last talk and the conference dinner... The next day wouldn’t be much better. After the last talk we would have our project meeting. And then we would be hungry and need food. And then we would have to be in bed at a reasonable time in order to be fresh enough to drive the whole way back the next day, without incidents.

These pictures were all taken while I walked to the conference in the morning. York is beautiful!

The York idea of a pavement

The most exposure to the city I got was after dinner the second day. I decided I was too tired to go to the pub, so I just took the long way home. Around the cathedral, through two city gates, and through the shambles; some very charming medieval streets. I can’t say I’ve seen much of York. But what I saw I liked! And who knows, maybe I will be back one day, with more time...

And some pictures of York by night

The Shambles

12 September 2011

All at Sea

I had my data in Excel; both my own and that which had been produced by Tasha. I gathered it, processed it, ordered it, combined it with other data, and put it in C2. I then used that program to construct transfer functions, and make environmental reconstructions. Then the data went to SigmaPlot (which crashes all the time) for plotting (hence the name), and to Illustrator for polishing. From Illustrator I exported it as JPG or PNG and thus it went into PowerPoint. And then it was Sunday evening and I had worked enough for the weekend. But when I got home I realised I may have put in into a presentation, but hadn’t even had a good look at it.

Soon it was Wednesday, and we set off to the beautiful and history-laden city of York, in order to ignore it and immerse ourselves in science. Most of it more scrutinized than mine.

King’s Manor of the University of York held a conference called “All at Sea?”, dealing with many things coastal. Sea level change (aha!), coastal protection, coastal archaeology; the works. It was a small conference; only two days, 37 participants, 26 talks, and 6 posters. Lots of interesting stuff! One of the highlights for us was a talk on how compaction can influence sea level reconstructions. This is another one of these keeping us on our toes-talks, of which we also had a bunch in Bern. We also all enjoyed a talk on Antarctic sea level reconstruction. Can you imagine the fieldwork!

The beautiful venue

The conference was organised by both the universities of York and Durham, and therefore Antony and Tasha were there too. And as Durham and Plymouth are 7-ish hours apart we take every opportunity where we accidentally meet to have a project meeting. As we did this time. And it was a serious one. Going through my hurriedly made talk already took a while. And we’re behind. I can’t wait to get into the lab and get rid of the backlog. And on that note: this blog post is long enough. There’s more to do!

And this was my temporary home! Don't worry, taxpayers: it was quite cheap...