Sustainable use of the subsurface

London underground.
  • What are the environmental impacts of engineered aspects of the subsurface and an increased reliance on underground space?

As population density continues to rise, society is becoming increasingly reliant on underground space to accommodate its growing infrastructure, such as water and sewage management, transport, parking and extraction of natural resources through quarrying or mining.

The challenge is not simply in understanding what the impact of this increased subsurface engineering will have on the environment but also how the changing environment will impact on the efficiency of these systems.

Underground resources

Society is increasingly reliant on the subsurface for a range of purposes, from its role in integrated waste water management to the provision of natural resources through quarrying. These uses often compete with one another for the space and services that the subsurface provides, with the potential to adversely affect one another and impact on the wider natural environment.

The potential link between direct human intervention in the geosphere and environmental response is a two-way process: firstly, we need to understand the impact of geological and hydrogeological factors on the efficiency of systems such as ground source heat pumps, and secondly we need the ability to predict the impact of subsurface engineering on the geosphere, including the extraction and introduction of material and energy.

Understanding this two-way process has the potential to support more effective management of the subsurface through improved spatial planning and the implementation of appropriate policies.

More specific questions that we are helping to answer:

How can we best assess the impacts of subsurface engineering on groundwater processes?

The Groundwater science team have produced a series of national thematic maps and datasets which cover the Thames basin in its entirety. These datasets are a valuable resource for characterising groundwater systems and developing conceptual models.

How can the sustainable use of underground space for development be achieved?

A proliferation of 3D geological models has been created by BGS over the last 15 years with models ranging in depth from 1 m to 15 000 m and covering areas in the orders of 0.1 km2 to 100 km2. These models have been produced to increase our understanding of the subsurface environment and to help us communicate issues pertaining to it, such as geological hazards, water protection and resource management. Particular focus has been drawn to major urban areas of the UK such as the Lower Mersey corridor, the Clyde basin and the Thames basin. This has led to the development of a number of overlapping models in these regions. Methodology has now been developed to amalgamate multiple versions of individual geological surfaces taken from existing 3D models into a series of unified surfaces that represent the preferred geological interpretation at any given set of co-ordinates. This has been tested on four key horizons within the Thames basin catchment area, which are the stratigraphic tops and bases of the Lambeth Group and Chalk Group. The unified surfaces will contribute to a whole-systems approach to climate change research, structural modelling and palaeoclimate studies.

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