Product has been added to the basket


‘Tellus’ aircraft, ready to go.

Tony Bazley explains the origin, evolution and future of Northern Ireland’s very own geological survey

Geoscientist 19.7 July 2009

The new Northern Ireland system of “joined-up” government, created by devolution, has had the desired effect of bringing all government departments closer together. This means the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) serves any department where its expertise is needed. Accordingly it finds itself dealing today with a wide range of matters, from minerals, agriculture, education and tourism to the environment – as well as all planning, water and heritage issues.

Staffing and mineral licensing

The office, sited in the university district of Belfast, has around 20 staff. Six are employed directly by DETI to operate the Minerals Branch, which administers mineral and petroleum licensing. The remainder of the (mostly scientific) staff are members of the British Geological Survey (BGS). This direct link with the BGS is a huge advantage to the GSNI. It means that local staff can avail themselves of its training and quality assessment, as well as call quickly on a wide range of specialist advice.

In the beginning, it was minerals - both industrial and precious - that were the raison d’etre of the Belfast office. The initial deep drilling of potential coal basins brought disappointing results - although in the 1980s about one billion tonnes of brown coal were proved around Ballymoney, Co Antrim. Those early deep boreholes of the 1950-60s, however, have proved to be lynchpins around which modern 3D models are built. Also important in the earlier days was the role the Survey played in developing legislation leading to the 1969 Mineral Development Act. This vested mineral interests in DETI, with just three exceptions: gold and silver (the Crown), mineral deposits being worked in 1969, and common substances (sand & gravel and aggregate).


During the last 15 years, the emphasis of the GSNI’s work has been changing and projects have been growing in size. The changes began with a cross-border initiative to produce resource maps and geological tourism products for counties Fermanagh and Cavan - in close cooperation with the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI). Currently, the nationwide Tellus Project holds centre stage.

Tellus is the biggest investigation ever carried out by the GSNI. It has given Northern Ireland complete high-resolution geophysical (low-level airborne sensing) and geochemical survey cover (30,000 samples tested for 60 elements and compounds). Added to detailed modern geological maps, it puts Northern Ireland in an enviable position, with very few nations being able to boast equivalent levels of data. We now have the means to solve some of the many structural and economic geology conundrums that remain (such as the ‘Dromore gravity high’ and the enigmatic ‘red bed’ sequences). It opens up the prospects for more exploration and currently a record 70% of the ground is held under licence. It has given a countrywide environmental chemical baseline (soils and water) against which to measure future changes. The latter will prove essential as concern increases over climate change, chemicals in the food chain and other aspects of our modern life-styles.

The Tellus Project was far from simple to arrange and carry out. It involved flying along a countrywide grid at heights of less than 100m. The geochemical survey required widespread access to land and involved laboratories in the UK, Netherlands, Finland and Canada. That it was completed on schedule and with a miniscule number of public complaints was no less than a triumph of management. This was recognised in 2006 by numerous awards for public relations work (Geoscientists passim.).

Magnetic map picks out basalt dykes and basic lavas (red)

TELLUS results

Pure, blue-skies research is a luxury hardly possible in a small office such as the GSNI. Only in collaboration with others can such ideas be developed. Now, however, mineral exploration companies and university researchers are already taking up the challenge presented by the new Tellus data. Although the project is a multi-million pound venture the economic return to Northern Ireland has already many times exceeded the expenditure. Indeed, the only sad note is that there is no longer a local mainstream geology department in Northern Ireland to help decipher the ‘new geology’. The department at Queen’s University Belfast was (wrongly, in the author’s opinion) closed down in 2001.

Others however, from Ireland and the rest of the UK, are not slow in coming forward. As an indication, about 30 PhDs, MScs and other university research projects have already been spawned by these new data. An example of the sort of fruitful collaboration is provided by the assessment of soil organic carbon, which has been carried out by scientists from Rothamsted Research and BGS in England with the GSNI and the Belfast Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute. The cost-effectiveness of airborne radiometric sensing of organic carbon is being tested. If it proves its worth, repeating the process at intervals could provide insight into how soil carbon contents are changing over time as climate change takes effect.

Take a look at the some of the maps derived from the Tellus Project and you cannot fail to be amazed at the volume of new and relevant data. Hundreds of dykes have been revealed beneath thick Quaternary débris, telling of extensional tectonics as the Atlantic Ocean came into being, splitting us from North America. Platinum Group metals, nickel and copper, all show highs in soils over the Antrim Plateau. Look at the maps for gold, and see how the currently-worked deposits in Co. Tyrone can be traced into adjacent areas. Then there are other areas, like the Mournes in Co. Down, where gold concentrate has been panned. When Irish songwriter Percy French wrote of the Irish emigrant in London pining for home:

.. there’re gangs of them digging for gold in the streets
(At least when I asked them that's what I was told)…
But for all that I found there I might as well be
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

…he spoke more truly than he knew!

Gold distribution

Pure water vital

The economic importance of groundwater resources was recognised in the early days of the GSNI. Aquifers in counties Armagh, Antrim and Londonderry were tested and put into the supply chain, proving invaluable during drought years such as the mid-1970s. Today groundwater, and the protection of surface water supplies, is no less significant. Satisfying European quality legislation and the advent of water charges has also increased the need for hydrogeological advice. Dedicated officers of the GSNI support the vital work of the Water Management Unit of the Environment Agency.

All the above goes on alongside the digitising of map data to provide a geological Geographic Information System (DigMapNI), field surveying, monitoring quarrying activities, the management of all old mine workings (c. 2100), maintaining a comprehensive borehole database and dealing with enquiries from both private and public sectors.

Nickel distribution

Anything but superficial

Another interesting change is the publication of University of Ulster research by DETI and the GSNI. A book The Last Glacial Termination in Northern Ireland sets a new scene for the last part of the Quaternary. Knowing how the glacial deposits of till, sand etc. were formed is critical in understanding the engineering characteristics of the superficial deposits on which our infrastructure is built. As the Engineering Geology Map of Belfast (1971) was the first of its type in Ireland and the UK, so GSNI plans to remain at the forefront in presenting superficial deposit data of clear practical utility. After all, this is what many of our houses is built on.

Landscape tourism

A most important initiative marked a new level of collaboration with the GSI in the field of landscape tourism and educational outreach. The two surveys played pivotal roles in developing the first trans-national geopark of counties Fermanagh and Cavan – Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. Indeed, the GSNI geologist most closely involved with this project is now one of UNESCO’s principal advisers on Geoparks all over the world – a topic that will form the basis of this year’s meeting of the Association of European Geological Societies Meeting in Cluj, Romania ( this month (9-13 July).

The surveys are also publishing Earth science data in a popular style under the general banner Landscapes from Stone. The book A Story through Time, 11 Explore guides and eight Walks guides cover the 12 northernmost counties of the island. All are colourful and readable. Relevant county councils and local district councils have been involved in their production, through advice and funding - although the lion’s share of funding has come from European sources. Landscape tourism in a country with a World Heritage Site – Giant’s Causeway – as well as geology that is as varied as the north of Ireland, just has to grow and be important for the future of its economy.

Schools workshop


GSNI is also actively involved in outreach work to schools, organising workshops for both teachers and pupils. This work is extending to taking a general role in raising the awareness of the importance of geology by organising public lectures and conferences. Iain Stewart, the Scottish geologist known for his frequent appearances as a television presenter, gave a public lecture The Power of the Planet in Belfast this January. It was followed the next day by a conference on Climate Change, and then visits to schools. About 1400 people attended the meetings. The GSNI is now often a partner in making such events happen.


Further research into geothermal energy and gas storage, including sequestration of carbon dioxide, is on the cards for GSNI. A major new publication is being prepared to give new explanations of what the great poet Seamus Heaney called ‘the vastness and pastness of geology’. The GSNI has an important and continuing role to play in the economy of Northern Ireland - a survey changing to meet the challenges of the modern community it serves.
Colby House

What is GSNI?

The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) was established in 1947. It is an integral part of the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade & Investment (DETI).

DETI does what it says on the label: it brings inward investment by encouraging enterprise and trade. It is within this remit, to make a positive contribution to the economy, that the GSNI strategy is developed.

Further reading

  • Rawlins, BG, et al., 2009: European Journal of Science, Vol. 60, Issue 1, 44-54.
  • McCabe, M. and Dunlop, P. 2006: The Last Glacial Termination in Northern Ireland. GSNI, Belfast. 93pp.
  • Mitchell, WI (ed). 2004: The Geology of Northern Ireland – Our Natural Foundation. GSNI, Belfast. 318pp.

All photographs © GSNI

Tony Bazley is Editor of Earth Science Ireland magazine (formerly “ES2K”), and winner of the 2009 R H Worth prize of The Geological Society of London.