Digital geoscience information products: subsidence and radon risks

The digital geological map of Great Britain (BGS Geology) is used widely by consultants, businesses, and public sector bodies for diverse purposes, ranging from mineral resource assessment to the assessment of ground conditions. Building upon BGS Geology, BGS has produced a series of spatial information products that characterise shallow geohazard potential. These focus on societally relevant themes such as ground instability, radon, flooding and mining hazards. They deliver very substantial economic and health benefits to industry, the insurance sector, local and regional government, and the public.

Background

BGS's digital geoscience information products are developed using in-house scientific and technical expertise through consultation with a range of stakeholders to help address their specific requirements. All development was funded directly through NERC National Capability BGS work.

BGS Geology 50k

Geology of UK

BGS Geology is the baseline digital geological map of Great Britain, produced at scales from 1:625 000 to 1:10 000. BGS Geology 50k, the 1:50 000 scale output, presents the most up-to-date understanding of both bedrock and superficial geology, and is continually updated to incorporate new data and interpretations made by the BGS and the external community.

BGS Geology 50k incorporates a vast amount of data and is based on thousands of person-years of effort. The BGS Geology digitisation project itself was started in 1998: Version 1 was published in 2001 with Version 6 in 2010.

BGS Geology 50kis used by a very broad range of users (public bodies, higher education institutes (HEIs), private sector) in decision-making related to natural resource management (including minerals and groundwater), site investigation, and infrastructure planning. BGS Geology 50k is also used for teaching purposes in UK university geology departments. It is served to UK HEIs through EDINA; their Digimap service has 24 000 users who view about one million maps containing BGS data each year.

Since September 2010, BGS Geology 50k has been served free of charge through iGeology, an application developed by BGS specifically for mobile platforms. It is clear from feedback on the iGeology download pages that BGS Geology 50k is being used daily for many commercial purposes including drilling, site investigations, structural surveying and field archaeology, and 'promoting the potential of English/Welsh wines'. The same feedback provides evidence that the impacts of BGS Geology extend beyond these specialist fields into support for teaching of geology in higher educational institutes, and has helped raise public awareness of geology and the environmental sciences in general.

BGS Geology 50k is the baseline dataset from which separate derived information products have been developed, including BGS GeoSure and radon.

BGS GeoSure

Ground stability hazards

BGS GeoSure comprises six spatial information layers that characterise susceptibility to shallow geohazards for low-rise structures:

BGS GeoSure incorporates many years of research, with detailed geological property understanding, event databases, digital terrain models, GIS multiparameter analyses and informatics expertise all brought together to produce data for the whole of Great Britain at a 25 m resolution. This information is used during the planning and development stage for both green- and brownfield sites to assess their suitability for development and to specify building design requirements.

BGS supplies GeoSure information to customers directly, but the principal route to market is through a group of value-added resellers (VARs), for example LandMark Information Group and Groundsure. These VARs supply more than 500 000 site-specific reports containing BGS data to private individuals and commercial property development businesses annually.

The principal beneficiaries of the economic impacts created by BGS GeoSure are the end consumers of the information, who use it to inform decisions on property/land purchase and design, and intermediary companies (e.g. insurers) who have used BGS GeoSure to widen their commercial service provision, improve business turnover and increase profitability.

Landslides

In 2006 the BGS GeoSure information product was used as a case study by the economists PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in an investigation commissioned by NERC into the economic benefit of environmental research. PwC concluded the following:

  • decision-takers are empowered to make better-informed decisions by using this information, and can avoid future costs and prevent loss of investment by avoiding or mitigating subsidence incidents
  • BGS information on subsidence risk, provided at postcode and household level, is 'accurate and relevant to user needs', responsive to climate change impacts, and 'meets the needs of the information age'
  • by using this information, financial and social costs can be minimised through avoiding investment in areas at risk of subsidence, or taking pre-emptive action and mitigating subsidence
  • using this information created wider societal benefits including avoidance of stress, injury and disruption associated with loss of property

Noting that the average annual cost of subsidence to the UK insurance industry is about £300 million (Association of British Insurers), PwC concluded that use of the BGS ground stability information could save UK insurers between £70 million and £270 million in reduced payouts between 2006 and 2030. When the effects of inflation are factored in, it can be reasonably concluded that comparable present-day figures would be significantly in excess of these values.

Radon

Radon deaths compared to other causes of premature deaths per year in the UK

Radon (Rn) is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that enters buildings from the ground and which, unless vented, can accumulate to dangerous levels.

Exposure increases the risk of lung cancer, and a study of lung cancer from indoor Rn in England and Wales (by the Health Protection Agency (HPA), now part of Public Health England, in 2009) concluded that about 1100 lung cancer deaths per year were caused directly by Rn. The HPA recommended that Rn levels should be reduced in homes where the average is at or above 200 becquerels per m3: this is termed the action level. The HPA defined Rn-affected areas as those with one per cent or more chance of a house having a Rn concentration at or above the action level.

The natural Rn hazard potential information product for England and Wales was developed in collaboration with, and partly funded by, the HPA. It required the development of an innovative Rn potential mapping method based on statistical assessment of indoor Rn measurements within a digital geological framework. It was launched in 2007 and provides the current definitive map of Rn affected areas in England and Wales, giving a probability that an individual property in England and Wales is at or above the action level. Property owners can use the information to find indicative natural Rn potential levels at their properties or locations, and to decide on remedial action if necessary.

The information also provides an answer to one of the standard legal enquiries on house purchase in England and Wales, known as CON29 standard enquiry of local authority. Builders and developers of homes and commercial premises can factor the information into the designs of new buildings to mitigate the effects of Rn. The radon potential dataset provides information on the level of protection required as described in the latest Building Research Establishment guidance on Rn protective measures for new buildings (BR 211 2007).

Building regulations under the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 set mandatory standards to ensure buildings are designed and constructed to minimise the threat from Rn gas. The BGS-HPA digital radon potential dataset for Scotland technical handbooks provide guidance on achieving the standards set in the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 and subsequent Buildings (Scotland) Amendment Regulations.

The principal benefits of the Rn hazard potential information product are reduced numbers of deaths and illness through lowered incidence of Rn-induced lung cancers, which in turn have significant economic and social impacts. The immediate beneficiaries are clearly the people (and their dependents) who avoid lung cancer. Economic benefits accrue from reduced healthcare expenditure as the estimated number of Rn-induced lung cancers declines.

Contact

Publications

BGS Geology 50k

Jackson, I.  2005.  Addressing the real needs of all the users of geological information : the opportunities, issues and problems.  In: Ostaficzuk, Stanislaw, (ed). The current role of geological mapping in geosciences.  Springer, 59–68 (Nato Science Series, 4, Earth and Env).

Jackson, I.  2007.  OneGeology: sharing what we have.  Geosciences, 6. 33.

Jackson, I.  2007.  OneGeology: making geological map data for the earth accessible.  Episodes, 30 (1). 60–61.

Laxton, J, Serrano, J-J, and Tellez-Arenas, A.  2010.  Geological applications using geospatial standards : an example from OneGeology-Europe and GeoSciML.  International Journal of Digital Earth, 3 (S1). 31–49. 10.1080/17538941003636909

Sen, M, and Duffy, T.  2005.  GeoSciML : development of a generic Geoscience Markup Language.  Computers and Geosciences, 31 (9). 1095–1103. 10.1016/j.cageo.2004.12.

Smith, A.  2011.  Digital Geological Map of Great Britain, information notes, 2011.  British Geological Survey Open Report, OR/10/050.  67pp

BGS Geology.

EDINA – the JISC-funded data service for higher education publishes annual reports regarding use and popularity of its services, one of which is the geology maps service based wholly upon BGS Geology. Latest figures from EDINA show two million screen maps used since June 2010 (when the service started) and 24 000 active users in higher education institutions. The latest of these reports is available http://edina.ac.uk/impact/docs/Geology_Digimap_2012.pdf.

Feedback on commercial and non-commercial uses of BGS Geology 50k through the iGeology mobile app is available from the Apple iTunes store.

Geology of Britain viewer.

BGS GeoSure

Culshaw, M G, Jackson, I, and Giles, J R A.  2006.  The provision of digital spatial data for engineering geologists.  Bulletin of Engineering Geology and Environment, 65 (2). 185–194. 10.1007/s10064-005-0034-x

Harrison, A M, Plim, J F M, Harrison, M, Jones, L D, Culshaw, M G.  2012.  The relationship between shrink-swell occurrence and climate in south-east England.  Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, 123 (4). 556–575. 10.1016/j.pgeola.2012.05.0

Hughes, R.  2007.  Did the Earth move for you? Buying a house? Every house-buyer in the UK could benefit from a new geological hazard service from the British Geological Survey.  Planet Earth, Spring. 24–25.

Hurst, M D, Ellis, M A, Royse, K R, Lee, K A, and Freeborough, K.  2013.  Controls on the magnitude-frequency scaling of an inventory of secular landslides.  Earth Surface Dynamic, 1. 67–78. 10.5194/esurf-1-67-2013

PriceWaterhouseCoopers.  2006.  Economic benefits of environmental science: a study of the economic impacts of research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Rees, J, Gibson, A, Harrison, M, Hughes, A, and Walsby, J.  2009.  Regional modelling of geohazard change.  In: Culshaw, M (ed).  Engineering geology for tomorrow's cities. London, UK, Geological Society of London, 49–63. (Geological Society special publications, 22).

Royse, K R.  2011.  The handling of hazard data on a national scale: a case study from the British Geological Survey.  Surveys in Geophysics, 32 (6). 753–776. 10.1007/s10712-011-9141-3

Walsby, J.  2007.  Geohazard information to meet the needs of the British public and government policies.  Quaternary Internation, 171–172. 179–185. 10.1016/j.quaint.2007.02.01

Walsby, J.  2008.  GeoSure: a bridge between geology and decision makers. In: Liverman, D G E, Pereira, C P G, and Marker, B R (eds).  Communicating environmental geoscience.  London, UK, Geological Society of London, 81–87. (Special Publications, 305).

Association of British Insurers, 2006. Subsidence – dealing with the problem [online]. [cited 3 August, 2006]. Available from http://www.abi.org.

Radon

Appleton, J D, and Miles, J C H.  2010.  A statistical evaluation of the geogenic controls on indoor radon concentrations and radon risk.  Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, 101 (10). 799–803. 10.1016/j.jenvrad.2009.06.002

Appleton, J D, Daraktchieva, Z, and Young, M E.  2015.  Geological controls on radon potential in Northern Ireland.  Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, 126 (3). 328–345. 10.1016/j.pgeola.2014.07.001

Health Protection Agency.  2009.  Radon and Public Health: report prepared by the Subgroup on Radon Epidemiology of the Independent Advisory Group on Ionising Radiation.  Documents of the Health Protection Agency, HPA, UK.

Miles, J C H, and Appleton J D.  2005.  Mapping variation in radon potential both between and within geological units.  Journal of Radiological Protection, 25, 257–276.

Scheib, C, Appleton, J D, Miles, J C H, Green, B M R, Barlow, T S, and Jones, D G.  2009.  Geological controls on radon potential in Scotland.  Scottish Journal of Geology, 45 (2). 147–160. 10.1144/0036-9276/01-401

Scheib, C, Appleton, J D, Miles, J C H, and Hodgkinson, E.  2013.  Geological controls on radon potential in England.  Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, 124 (6). 910–928. 10.1016/j.pgeola.2013.03.004

Environmental Radon Newsletter (Issues 35 and 51).