Fracking: thoughts on the controversial battle for future energy

by Jessica Wood

Hydraulic fracturing or ‘Fracking’ as it is more commonly known, is both controversial and hotly debated. Fracking is a process by which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is drilled and injected into dense shale rock at high pressure in order for the rock to release natural gas from the tiny fissures created. Is it an essential process for future energy use? Are there cleaner and less ‘risky’ options? These are questions often put to experts, but with extensive fracking already occurring in the U.S. it may only be a matter of time before the UK is experiencing large scale fracking for itself. On the 23rd April, 2015 at the Aberystwyth University Arts Centre there was a public forum entitled “Fracking and the Imagination: Scraping the Barrel or Saving the Day?” Attending were natural and social scientists, artists and environmental activists from within Wales and further afield, as well as lecturers from across the department. One such lecturer was Mark Whitehead, an environmental geographer, who I put some questions to regarding fracking and how a human geographer approaches the topic.

Fracking is often justified in that it gives us energy security, something vital for the future sustainability of energy intensive life as we now live it. According to a British Geological Survey’s estimates, if just 10% of the UK’s shale reserves were utilised, then Britain could be powered for the next half century and even replace dwindling North Sea supplies. However, this means the continuation of the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels and a distraction away from a low-carbon future. Mark Whitehead said: “the main risk is that it [fracking] could delay the urgent need to transition to zero carbon fuels”. Doesn’t this raise the question as to whether governments are as committed to addressing the threats of climate change as they sometimes suggest? While fracking is part of the government agenda, and being plugged as a significant rescue for our future energy needs, it will have to be eventually abandoned in exchange for renewable energy.

The fracking process itself, and its impacts on surrounding areas, have come under scrutiny by campaign groups and communities, most recently in Yorkshire with the ‘Frack Free Ryedale’ campaign group. In 2011, the UK’s most advanced fracking project in Blackpool was halted after two minor earthquakes were found to have a possible link. The decision whether to continue fracking at these sites is due in June 2015. Exploratory fracking, as seen in Blackpool, is common throughout the UK, particularly in the North West and South East of England, but with many sites granted, few have been drilled. Perhaps this is due to the issues associated with the fracking process. Not only are large amounts of water needed (in an already water scarce south east) to input into the system, but the wall casings associated with fracking have been met with concern about leakages and possible contamination of ground water. These are profound concerns and according to Mark Whitehead, could represent a real threat to the long term health of the communities which surround such sites.

Although, this article is short and focuses on a somewhat negative view of fracking, it raises important concerns which are largely at the forefront. That said, fracking is part of a much wider and complex argument where both advantages and disadvantages come into play. It is difficult to form an opinion on fracking when it is clouded in so much uncertainty and contradictory evidence. If we focus on personal interests then companies may say yes because of its economic value, where as local communities may so no because of ‘NIMBYism’ (Not In My Backyard) syndrome and its environmental degradation on their local town. Fracking may bring benefits to one entity but often it will have negative effects elsewhere on other parts of society.

What we can conclude on this topic however is it refocuses our attention on fossil fuels. With an increasingly energy thirsty society and with the new Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Amber Rudd, now expressing support for fracking and banning onshore subsidies for wind farms, it appears renewables may be on hold and fracking encouraged. Fracking is not a viable solution for our future energy needs: it doesn’t lead to a low-carbon future nor does it help countries meet their emission targets. The future of fracking therefore is one of uncertainty, as Mark Whitehead says:

“I have this vision of future generations scratching their heads as they look back at fracking and think ‘so confronted with the real and present danger of climate change you chose to fracture the earth’s crust so you could release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – what were you thinking!’”

A fitting conclusion for a topic which continues to divide opinions long before the fracking companies move in, and perhaps, long after they’ve moved out.

Research Excellence Framework- ‘It’s quite a complicated beast’

by Sara Elizabeth Fisher

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is probably not a concept well known to students, perhaps deeming the research conducted by departments somewhat detached from our own education. However, Aberystwyth’s recent performance in the REF suggests that not only should we be aware of what it is and its impacts but we should also be proud to be taught at such an institution. I spoke to Professor Colin McInnes who leads the Research Excellence Framework for Aberystwyth University. So what exactly is the REF?

‘Every 5 years all departments in all universities are given the chance to have their research quality assessed and the benefits of having this are twofold. Firstly profile and peer recognition, if you do well you are seen as being a strong and successful department in research terms and secondly the money, there is money attached to how well you do’.

This REF is measured by three main areas; the first is quality of the research, the second is the research environment and thirdly the impact of the research. A composite score is given of the three areas. The last submissions went in November, 2014, however departments within the university start preparing for the submission on average ten months before the assessment. This year’s results were released in December. Participating in the REF is a sign of departmental strength. So how did Aberystwyth do?

‘We did roughly as expected. We can’t compete with the large, science intensive universities we are just not big enough, we don’t get the same grant capture, the same quantity of staff going in. So if you compare us to a Manchester or an Imperial College London we are not going to do as well simply because of size and subject mix. If you take that into account we were very satisfied with how we did. We maintained our position, which is probably punching a bit above what we would consider our natural position’.

However, some departments within the university did extremely well, with one of those departments being Geography and Earth Sciences which ‘did better than last time and matched our expectations within the department. In other words we thought the department was very strong and we thought it should do very well. Our hopes were realized when the results came out so we did very well’.

At this point many people will be asking why this matters to students and why we should take notice of such frameworks. This is an important factor for students as post-graduation we will be recognised as coming from a good department and we can take pride in being part of a research leading institution. Perhaps the most obvious and attractive benefit of doing well is that high achieving departments attract quality staff and as a result the teaching is somewhat cutting edge, learning what is new and important in Geography. As Professor Colin McInnes states ‘the REF is one of the key indicators to how good a department is’. There is also a financial incentive to doing well in the REF, often six figure grants are made in the light of good results and this has a positive impact on student experience and opportunities at the university.

Research counts and research speaks, perhaps understanding more of what happens outside the narrow confines of our degree will teach us to perhaps value our experience on a different level. It is easy to judge a university on location and rankings on various things but I would argue that a closer look at the actual output of a department is an extremely strong representation of what your degree will be like. From my perspective my three years studying Human Geography has been extremely interesting. It far surpassed my expectations. Many of my friends have remarked on how varied my modules are, studying underground art, monuments and world religions is typical. The type and quality of research produced in the Geography department, I believe is in evidence in the modules provided and the enjoyment of the degree we study.

Work placement: Four Ashes SSSI Gravel Pit

Written by Holly Addis, collated by Heather Crumpton

Four Ashes SSSI gravel pit has long been of geological interest. This site is five miles north of Wolverhampton in Staffordshire. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was a working quarry and supplied scientists with information concerning both the extent of the Devensian Irish Sea ice sheet in Britain, and palaeoecological and palaeoclimatological changes during the late Pleistocene. However, fifty years on, not only had most of the quarry been infilled with landfill, covering many of the exposures, little management had been done in reducing the impacts of vegetation cover and waterlogging. The site was assessed by Natural England as being in unfavourable condition and much of its scientific interest was thought to have been lost (Burek, 2012). Although only a small area of the original working face can still be viewed, clearance work and regeneration of the site began in autumn 2012 and the site has since recovered to favourable condition.

The original research on the Four Ashes site was from 1967 – 1970 (Morgan, A.V. 1973). On the basis of this work, the gravel pit was chosen as the type site for the Devensian glaciation in Britain and therefore it became an important reference site for the Quaternary study. In more recent years other examples of the Devensian period have been found elsewhere in Chelford (Bowen, 1999) and Dimlington (Rose, 1985) , however, Four Ashes still remains a key reference and stratotype site (Glasser, 2002). Although much of the site has been lost due to landfill, important till deposits can still be found at the former pit margin. The bedrock at Four Ashes is Triassic sandstone, though little of this can be seen today. The site is more important for the overlying gravel deposits and the organic content within and beneath them (Andrew and West, 1977). The sequence is capped by Irish Sea till. The lowest organic lenses are thought to date to the Ipswichian Interglacial and the base of the gravel unit was laid down by braided rivers in the early Devensian. Within these early-mid Devensian gravels there are further organic lenses which contain evidence of cooler climatical conditions and imply that whist the gravel was being deposited, Four Ashes had a deciduous woodland environment (Morgan, A. V. 1973). The insect fauna, particularly beetles, from these sediments was studied in detail by A Morgan (1973). Palaeoclimatic evidence from pollen and insect fauna indicate that summer temperatures only reached 10oC (Duff and Smith, 1992).

Here a large rootball  has been uprooted causing the top of the profile to collapse (c) Eleanor Brown, on a visit to one of the sections excavated

Here a large rootball has been uprooted causing the top of the profile to collapse
(c) Eleanor Brown, on a visit to one of the sections excavated

Radiocarbon dating from the Four Ashes site show that the last main glaciation in Britain peaked after 30,000 BP in the late Devensian between 26000-13000 BP (Bowen, 1973). Although till from the Four Ashes site indicates the Irish Sea ice extended as far as Wolverhampton, the site itself shows little evidence regarding the main glaciation other than these till deposits. Later periglacial conditions followed the deposition of the till, causing cryoturbation and freeze-thaw processes to occur (Bowen, 1999). This cold climate caused the formation of features such as ice-wedges which are seen penetrating through the profile. The ice-wedges found range from 71 to 215cm in depth and 6 to 51cm in width (Morgan, A. V. 1973). Unfortunately they are poorly preserved. Although results from the University of Liverpool are yet to be fully processed, they do indicate that, in the recently reviewed sections at Four Ashes, there are possible signs of cryoturbation. Although ice-wedge pseudomorphs do not provide evidence for the main glaciation itself, they do indicate the extent of permafrost and the climatic conditions of the later Devensian period (Bowen, 1973). Although Four Ashes has now lost much of its original profile studied in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it is an important geological site in providing insight in the extent of the Devensian ice sheet, and subsequent permafrost, and the climate variations during this time. More recent studies have utilised advanced technology, such as the University of Liverpool who may provide new dating of the Devonian ice sheet at Four Ashes. The University of Liverpool used optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) in the sands and gravels at the site in order to predict a more accurate age of the till. Results from this research are yet to be published.

Quaternary sediments are particularly vulnerable to plant root penetration and damage from soil processes (Bridgland, 2013) and this is evident at Four Ashes gravel pit. Not only has severe biological disruption damaged the site, infilling sections of the gravel pit with landfill, has meant that in the remaining areas only 2.2m of the original 4.6m profile can be seen (Morgan, A. V. 1973). Much of the scientific research, and consequent papers, was conducted during the 1970’s and since then very little research has been updated despite the advancements in technology. The site had not attracted recent scientific interest until the University of Liverpool decided that Four Ashes was important and relevant for research for the BRITICE-CHRONO project. The Four Ashes site is now part of a substantial five year project, funded and supported by the National Environment Research Council (NERC) consortium grant; BRITICE-CHRONO NE/J009768/1, in investigating the timing of the growth and demise of the last British and Irish Ice Sheet. From this investigation of the advancement and retreat of the Devensian ice sheet, the BRITICE-CHRONO project hopes to predict ice sheet change for current day ice masses; principally land ice retreat in Antarctica and Greenland, to help predict future global sea level change.

Richard Waller of Keele University visited the site in 2011 and wrote up a report about conservation suggestion measures of the site for Natural England. This led to the initial recent re-interest at Four Ashes and with aid of a Natural England CES (Conservation Enhancement Scheme) grant, the site landowner and the scientific interest of University of Liverpool, Four Ashes has been subject to management actions to return it to favourable condition for research. In the spring of 2014 members of the BRITICE-CHRONO project from the University of Liverpool conducted research using OSL, to date the sediments. The University is still processing the results from the site and the final data will be included within the BRITICE-CHRONO results. This return of research at the site initiated conservation action to take place by allowing access for University of Liverpool and potentially other scientists in the near future.

Summer 2014, and the site has already started to vegetate over and the ground is saturated  (c) Holly Addis

Summer 2014, and the site has already started to vegetate over and the ground is saturated
(c) Holly Addis

One of the main issues at Four Ashes was vegetation cover over the exposure and roots intruding and disturbing the upper part of the profile. This was overcome in a number of ways. Large trees had grown up around the site, covering the former quarry face and the un-dug reserve, and needed to be removed. This was done by cutting them down close to the base. However, caution was required due to the deep roots. In a few cases the remaining trees on the un-dug reserve have been uprooted, particularly in the 2013-2014 winter storms and have taken a lot of the topsoil upper part of the sequence with them. This damages the profile further and so stabilising the slope was also important, as well as opening it up from vegetation. A few trees have been left near the road side to reduce unauthorised access e.g. fly-tipping. Grassy vegetation was removed in certain areas; however, the development of herbaceous vegetation will help prevent further erosion. Waterlogging is also an issue at old quarry sites like Four Ashes as it hinders access to the former pit faces. A site inspection showed that the nearby drains had become blocked over time. The original drainage channel had become overgrown and this has been cleared to help lower water levels by around 4 feet. Since then brash from the vegetation clearance has been laid down in the waterlogged areas to help provide firm ground to allow vehicles (e.g. mechanical excavators) access to the former quarry floor. This clearance program meant that in spring 2014 members of the BRITICE-CHRONO project from the University of Liverpool were able to carry out their data collection. However, this solution was not without risks. Excavations using mechanical vehicles led to issues with root balls becoming unstable and the upper profile collapsing (Figure 1). This also potentially causes health and safety concerns for scientists wishing to research the site in the future. A recent site visit in July 2014 showed that the vegetation is already beginning to return and water levels are noticeably higher (Figure 2). Although the Four Ashes is a success in terms of site management, this will only be temporary unless further periodic management is put into place. The CES agreement is a five year project and so Four Ashes vegetation clearance will continue until the agreement expires. Annual clearance and localised monitoring are straightforward methods that will help maintain Four Ashes’ favourable condition for future research. The Quaternary Research Association (QRA) is marking 50 years by creating a list of the most significant 50 quaternary geological sites across Britain (Silva, 2014). Natural England has nominated Four Ashes to be included in this Top 50 list, reiterating Four Ashes importance and recovery.


  • Tracey Hill, Geoff Howe, Jaclyn Lake from the Natural England Staffordshire land management team.
  • Geological site management advice from Barbara Silva and Dave Evans from Natural England.
  • Piers Monckton and Ian Henderson from Somerford Home Farm
  • Richard Chiverrell and Matt Burke from BRITICE-CHRONO and the University of Liverpool
  • References:
    • Andrew, R. and West, R.G. (1977) ‘Pollen analysis from Four Ashes, Worcs.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, B280, 242-6.
    • Bowen, D.Q. (1973) ‘The Pleistocene history of Wales and the borderlands.’ Geological Journal, 8, 207-224.
    • Bowen, D.Q. (1999) A revised correlation of quaternary deposits in the British Isles. Geological society publishing house, Bath.
    • Bridgland, D. (2013) ‘Geoconservation of Quaternary sites and interests.’ Proceedings of geologists’ Association, 124, 612-624.
    • Burek, C. (2012) ‘The importance of quaternary geoconcervation.’ Quaternary newsletter, 126, 25-33.
    • Duff, P.Mcl.D. and Smith, A.J. (1992) Geology of England and Wales. The Geological society, London.
    • Evens, D.J.A. (2002) Dimmlington. In Quaternary of Northern England, Geological conservation review series, No. 25, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, pp 139-44
    • Glasser, N.F. (2002) Four Ashes. In Quaternary of Northern England, Geological conservation review series, No. 25, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, pp 136-38.Hains, B.A. and Horton, A. (1989) Central England. British Geological survey, London.
    • Morgan, A. (1973) ‘Late Pleistocene environmental changes indicated by fossil insect faunas od the English Midlands.’ Boreas, 2, 173-212.
    • Morgan, A.V. (1973) ‘The Pleistocene geology of the area north and west of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England.’ Philosophical transactions of the royal society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 265, 233-297.
    • Rose, J. (1980) ‘The Dimlington Stadial/Dimlingron Chronozone; a proposal for naming the main glacial episode of the late Devensian in Britain.’ Boreas, 14, 225-30.
    • Silva, B. (2014) ‘Help nominate a QRA Top 50 site.’ Earth Heritage, 42, 11.
    • Waller, R. (2011) ‘Preliminary recommendations for the re-exposure of the four ashes SSSI.’ Report to Natural England.

    Study Tips

    by Helen Siegieda

    In first year you may not be spending a huge amount of time in the library, but make sure you do enable yourself to become familiar with how to locate and take out a book, how to operate the printers and scanners and how to find out where there are free computers. I did this in my first year and it helps you jump straight into your studies in second year as you know what you’re doing! Rather than spending months trying to figure everything out.

    All the staff are really friendly in Geography and are willing to help out if you are struggling with anything. Personally I was struggling with settling in at university and went to speak to my personal tutor, Kevin Grove, who helped me keep my motivation and discouraged me from leaving. He offered his own experiences about moving miles away from home and how it is difficult at first. Kim Peters is also a brilliant academic tutor and I know she has been approached on multiple occasions by my fellow students who have been unsure how to complete an assignment; keep a note of staff office hours or feel free to email them! All of their details are on the Aberystwyth University website.

    Personally I found this one of the most difficult aspects of university life. With being a new student, unfamiliar to the town, eager to socialise and make new friends as well as balance the Taekwondo Club and the Hiking Club, I became a little overwhelmed with everything I had to do. Don’t let things get on top of you! Keep a diary and write down all the things you have to do that week. Don’t pile too much into one day as you may overload yourself; spread it out throughout the week and don’t forget to leave a few evenings for some you time that you can spend with friends or just chilling out.

    Aberystwyth University is unique in that it assesses its students in a multitude of different ways; it isn’t just about essays, but reports, literature reviews, group presentations, individual presentations, interviews, questionnaires and more. Being a geography student gives you a huge variety of professional skills that you can take into the workplace. Don’t worry if you lack confidence in presenting or your essays aren’t up to scratch, that’s what first year is for, to hone in on your weaknesses and work on them to become better. Personally at secondary school my teachers would deliberately not pick me to do a presentation because I would be overcome with nerves and be unable to talk in front of a small group of people. After a few presentations at University I am now able to present in front of two hundred people confidently, and I don’t even get nervous. It is statistically proven that after 5-10 presentations you become a lot more confident and used to the activity. Practice makes perfect.

    I always find that the more you read, the easier an essay becomes to write. Start by having a look in the library and taking out books that have relevant titles/chapters to your assignment. Start by getting some background information around the topic, then you can use Google Scholar or Primo to hone in on specific areas. I would recommend about 7-10 sources for a decent essay. Make sure you write down the references as you go along, there is nothing worse than finishing an essay and getting to the bibliography to realise you have no idea where a particular quote or piece of information comes from. Lastly, I’d say take your time. Spread the essay process over 4-5 days; spend 3 days reading and making notes, then the next two days planning and writing.

    Group work is a really enjoyable part of university, and can actually make you some good friends as you are put into groups that you wouldn’t usually socialise with. Be polite and get to know the other members in your group before starting the work. I’ve found that creating a Facebook page is a really easy way to keep other group members updated and make sure you are all on track. Make sure to meet more than once in your group. You will separate and do individual pieces of research but this has to come together, so meet afterwards to put it into one presentation/report and then practice it a couple of times to make sure it flows. A common misconception is that group work does not require reading like an essay. That is wrong; lecturers all like to see reading in a piece of work so do a couple of readings each and throw in a quote here and there to make it clear that you have read, and make sure it relates to your topic.

    Student Views

    by Helen Siegieda

    Being a student of Human Geography at Aberystwyth I wanted to find out how my fellow students are finding their courses, and what advice they have for prospective students and first years within the Geography Department here.

    Isabel Parry (Second Year, F800)
    Do you have any advice for students picking modules?
    Consider how the module is assessed and what you perform best in e.g. essays, exams, presentations. However, most importantly, choose modules you’ll find interesting and enjoy learning about.

    What are your personal interests in geography?
    How we impact the environment and how the environment impacts us e.g. natural disasters, climate change, food and water security.

    What are you doing for your dissertation?
    I’m planning to look at water security and unequal access to water resources.

    General advice?
    Make the most of opportunities offered, have fun but be sure to make time for university work (especially second year!!).

    Olly Haines (Second Year, L700)
    What has been your favourite module so far?
    Placing Politics due to it being the most relevant to my interests as well as also being able to argue your opinion against other opposing opinions. The lecturers have also been the most interesting.

    What are your personal interests within geography?
    Politics of geography and how politicians have developed throughout the years as the world around them has changed. For example how social media plays a bigger part each general election. Which has led me to getting work experience/ internship with Kirsty Williams.

    Do you have any advice for students picking modules?
    Make sure you understand the module content prior to choosing it and make sure it is the right module which is appropriate to your degree, especially second year choices.

    A Day in the Life of GeogSoc

    by Helen Siegieda


    I tracked down Daniel Colson, a third year who is the current Vice President of GeogSoc for the academic year 2014-2015, and quizzed him about the ins and outs of the society and its best bits.

    Could you describe GeogSoc in a sentence for me?
    Ooh in a sentence. Okay, I’d say it’s the society for anyone interested in Geography, whether it be human or physical, who just wants to have a good time really.

    When did you join GeogSoc?
    I joined GeogSoc in Fresher’s Week of first year, because everyone else did, and I just sort of felt like I had too. Yeah, I made so many friends from it and it’s a really good way to socialise with other people.

    I feel like I should join now! Tell me about your role on the committee, the roles that you had and why you ran for it?
    Okay, so this year I’m the Vice President, and it’s my job to help the President, that’s Fiona Campbell, so this year as a Committee we organised careers talks for the department, and we’ve got three rugby sevens teams this year, so two boys teams and one girls. We play football every Wednesday afternoon, that’s open to boys and girls, doesn’t have to be just boys. Tends to be 15-20 people, and we have had a Staff vs Student football match, for which we lost 2-1 to the staff… Stephen Tooth scored the winner, which was a free kick. We’ve got a re-match coming up after Easter, if the staff want to do it. There’s socials every Tuesday night. We have an end of year meal coming up soon and a Christmas meal, and for every third year, not just those involved in the society. Fiona and I have to organise the Grad ball for the Society, we’re hopefully having it at the Marine Hotel where it was last year, and some of the lecturers end up in Pier, so I’ve got a great photo of me and Tom Holt, a few of us second years and a couple of lecturers in Pier Pressure.

    Can you tell me about the fundraising that Geog Soc takes part in?
    Throughout the year we’ve held different bake sales for various causes, at least two a semester. This has been run by Hannah Poll, our publicity officer, and always has a great response from the department and others across the university! Recently we held and organised a pub quiz to raise money for the Nepal earthquake (keeping along the geography theme). We also had one before Christmas raising money. Both popular. Lecturers attended and unfortunately won! We’ve had two staff student football matches which we organised, the one a couple of weeks ago was to raise money for MIND Aberystwyth – the local mental health charity. That was good, and we raised over £90 just from an hour of football. During May Bank holiday weekend we had three geography teams in Rugby 7s which we organised – two boys and one girls team. That was really good. Fundraising wise we’ve also done collections throughout the year for charities and helped to promote the departmental seminars.

    Have you been on any GeogSoc trips?
    Yeah, we’ve got a trips officer, this year it’s Sam Lloyd. First semester we went to the Animalarium at Borth, which everyone likes. It’s really good. It’s not an orphanage it’s like re-homing animals for people who have pets that they can’t cope with anymore, or zoos. You can feed all the monkeys and stuff, they grab peanuts off you, that’s fun. I think its £3 with a student card.

    What would you say a typical night out with GeogSoc is like?
    Great fun. Busy. Normally have 50-60 people. It’s just, pub crawl, different themes, everyone dresses up, go to Pier, and the dedicated ones go to Yokos.

    What would you say your favourite night out has been?
    Pub golf is always fun. We had a good social last year which was photo bingo. You have scores. You have a checklist and you have to try and get photos. Social starts at 8.30pm, split into small teams, and fill your score sheet of random photos. On the checklist there’s stuff like have a photo in the Pier DJ booth and loads of other stuff.

    Would you recommend GeogSoc to first years?
    Yeah definitely. What I recommend to first years is join as much as you can. Although you regret all the emails you get, just join everything that you think will interest you. One of my regrets is not committing to hockey or swimming, ‘cause I signed up to both of them in Fresher’s Week, and I still get their emails, but I didn’t go, so yeah join as much as you can.

    Awesome, thanks Dan.

    To find out more about GeogSoc…
    Find Aber GeogSoc 2014-2015 on Facebook
    Follow GeogSoc on Twitter
    Or check out the new GeogSoc blog!

    Dr. Andrew Thomas

    by Magda Chmura

    Dr. Andrew Thomas

    Dr. Andrew Thomas

    1. When did you first become interested in dry lands?

    I first did research in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa back in 1997. Ever since then I’ve been interested in the world’s drylands. The geomorphology and ecology is unique and totally fascinating. The numerous links between people and the environment are also very clear in drylands and that’s what makes it such a good place for Geographers to study.

    2. When did you visit a desert for the first time? How was it?

    I was on a Geography field trip of course! We went to the Sahara in southern Tunisia. I can still remember how excited I was to see the vast expanse of dunes. I couldn’t believe how fine the sand was, it was like flour. That trip was also memorable because unfortunately it coincided with the first Gulf war and we encountered some hostility in places. We had to leave one village pretty quickly when our coach was pelted with stones by a load of kids!

    3. Which desert is your favourite and why?

    That’s a difficult one. I’ve loved all of the drylands I’ve been to for different reasons. The Namib is spectacular, with huge dunes and stunning rock formations, but I’d have to say the Kalahari. I love Botswana. The people are so friendly and it always amazes me how resourceful they can be. The diversity of plants and animals is like nowhere else I’ve been. I see new species every time I go and you never quite know whether you’ll see lions, black mambas or tortoises at the next site.

    Kalahari  (c) Andrew Thomas

    (c) Andrew Thomas

    4. What was the most unusual thing that happened to you at a desert? Any scary stories?

    Animal encounters aside, one of the most unusual and incredible places I’ve been is the Tsodilo Hills in the isolated far north west of Botswana. The hills are made of resistant quartzite which rises almost vertically out of the sand and they are covered in ancient rock art. Some of the pictures date back many thousands of years and are exceptionally well preserved. The site is an important cultural and spiritual location for the indigenous San and Hambukushu communities and there are numerous stories of strange goings on there. On my first visit I planned to stay three days exploring the hills and looking at the rock paintings.

    Tsodilo Rock Art  (c) Andrew Thomas

    Tsodilo Rock Art
    (c) Andrew Thomas

    However, it didn’t quite work out like that and I ended up leaving after just one night. I was the only person there and I’d just gone to bed in my tent after a lovely day walking and taking photographs. Then I heard a deep rumbling noise coming from the north. It got louder and louder, and then wham, the tent bent right over on its poles as a wind hit the side. After a few seconds this stopped, the tent sprang back up and all went quiet again. However, after another few minutes I heard the noise again, this time coming from another direction. It got louder and louder and then the wind hit, pushing my tent right over. This went on for most of the night. Lying in my sleeping bag in the dark I tried to rationalise and explain this climatological phenomenon, but completely failed to do so, thinking instead that the spirits at the site were telling me to leave. When I got up in the morning, it was completely still, as if nothing had happened, but then a swarm of bees descended on the tent, and any last rational thoughts I had disappeared completely and I decided to make my escape. That didn’t go too well either, as I only got a few hundred metres before I buried the car in a patch of black cotton soil and had to spend several hours digging it out!

    5. Are we likely to experience more desertification due to climate change?

    Yes, sadly. All the climate predictions show that the world’s drylands are going to get hotter over this century. This will increase moisture deficits and make it more difficult for plants to grow and stabilise the surface. We can expect more wind erosion, dust storms and a deterioration of soil quality. Fortunately, there’s still quite a lot we can do to delay this, particularly by using appropriate farming techniques and limiting livestock numbers.

    Tsodilo Hills  (c) Andrew Thomas

    Tsodilo Hills
    (c) Andrew Thomas

    6. Why should we investigate deserts?

    For all of the reasons above and because they are wonderful places to be in.

    Where could geography take you? The RGS Ambassador Scheme

    by Sara Elizabeth Fisher

    Ever wondered how to pursue your love of geography. The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) has the answer in the form of the Ambassador scheme targeted at undergraduate, postgraduate and graduate geographers looking to make an active contribution to their community and to promote the subject of geography. Simon Faulkner, the coordinator of the scheme explains the benefits to school pupils:

    ‘The Geography Ambassador Scheme uses undergraduate and graduate geographer’s enthusiasm and passion for the subject to show school pupils of any Secondary School age the relevance and importance of the subject, not just to them personally, but also in application to the wider world.’

    The scheme exists to promote the discipline of geography. Everyone who has engaged with geography has experienced the perceived negative stereotypes associated with it, something which serves to deflect away from the depth and brilliance of the subject. This scheme seeks to dispel the myths associated with the subject and promote geography as the inspiring and diverse subject it is.

    I joined the scheme as a third year as a way of enhancing my employability and helping me to consider alternative career paths. However I was pleasantly surprised with the training day, honestly my expectation was a couple of hours going through guidelines and safety regulations. The session itself was indicative of Geography at its best, engaging, informative and extremely enjoyable. Throughout the training session we discussed how to encourage younger pupils to engage with the discipline, how to make sessions creative and interactive and deal with any problems that may arise throughout our participation on the scheme. The emphasis throughout was on how we can take our ideas and love of Geography beyond the institution, this as Simon Faulkner states is the primary purpose of the scheme:

    ‘The scheme places a large importance on relating the subject to school pupils, drawing on the Ambassadors’ university geography and ideas that pupils would not have encountered before, in an effort to encourage them to take the subject past the compulsory stages.’

    The scheme promotes an awareness and skill set which is valuable on a personal level, providing one with the confidence and motivation to do something which a subject they are passionate about. William Hingley, a third year Geography student who undertook the scheme last year explains how the scheme enabled him to expand his skill set, ‘the scheme really developed my confidence in working with younger generations and helped me share my love of Geography with a younger generation’. This is a sentiment shared by the Coordinator of the scheme, ‘the scheme promotes the aspects of geography that are not always picked up on, such as the variety of skills you gain and the socially conscious nature of the subject’. The scheme is unusual in its multiplicity of tackling many issues, broadening the horizons of the both the geographer and the subject.

    I would highly recommend that every student should apply for the scheme:

    ‘The RGS Ambassador scheme helped to reaffirm my passion for geography. I remembered how much fun it is going beyond dissertations and deadlines. The day was really fun and I would encourage everyone to give it a go’. Daniel McConaghy, third year Geography student.

    So next time the email comes round asking for people to sign up for the RGS Ambassador scheme, give it a shot. You never know where it may take you.