National geophysical survey

The near surface and deeper subsurface are being increasingly utilised and require effective management to enable the most appropriate use. Both new and existing uses of the subsurface require ever more detailed understanding of the ground beneath our feet and the relationship between the subsurface and the environment. Recent developments and new proposals for the use of the subsurface include resources (conventional and unconventional oil and gas, minerals, geothermal energy, groundwater), underground storage (hydrogen, carbon dioxide, compressed air), environment (fluid leakage, contaminant management), infrastructure (tunnels and shafts) and geohazards (landslides, groundwater flooding, sinkholes).

Call for expressions of interest

Following the National Geophysical Survey meeting held in April at the British Geological Survey we are pleased to announce that from 08 June 2016 we are calling for expressions of interest for the survey.

Forms to download:

The closing date for all expressions of interest is Monday 4 July.

If you have any queries then please don’t hesitate to email

Existing maps and models

Current geological maps and models are, in many cases, based on very sparse subsurface data. In some areas the most detailed data are potential field surveys (gravity and/or magnetic) or site investigation boreholes. In some offshore there are economically significant regions covered by 3D seismic data, while in others, and across much of the onshore, there is a variable network of 2D seismic lines with only a few small areas of 3D survey. Much of the offshore data are held in confidence and only some are freely available, often excluding more recent reprocessed versions, resulting in a more limited understanding of geological baseline of these areas, leading to significant uncertainty.

Onshore, the situation regarding data release is better. After the confidentiality period specified in the PEDL licence expires (three to five years depending on the licence terms) the data can be viewed and downloaded from the UK Onshore Geophysical Library, but only recently has seismic acquisition been allowed outside of licensed areas, so the lines are generally only 2D, short and of mixed vintage.

Increasing commercial activity and the environmental and geohazard response to activities requires an improved understanding of the geology and geological processes active in the subsurface. It is therefore critical to provide detailed 3D subsurface geological characterisation.

How will a national geophysical survey help?

The national geophysical survey (NGS) will generate better data over a wider area than before, and provide it freely to industry, academics, regulators and the public. The research undertaken using the data will provide a step-change in geological understanding of the UK, allowing BGS to further develop the National Geological Model.

The NGS will be supported by commercial and/or public funds and will build up initially from areas with particular commercial or environmental interests.

The NGS will form part of NERC's long term strategic approach to integrated environmental observation and data science to:

  • deliver the NERC strategy
  • drive innovation and growth
  • bring us closer to a "full model of the environment"

It will also contribute to the UK's leading position in environmental science and underpin societal and economic impacts for businesses, government and the public.

The long-term goal is to have as detailed a 3D model of UK onshore and offshore geology as is possible that is freely available. The focus at the outset will be on the onshore.


Since William Smith published the first geological map of Great Britain, the UK has been at the forefront of geological mapping. The BGS 1:50 000 onshore geological maps are now freely available via an app and the offshore 1:250 000 maps are available on the web. Onshore and offshore areas are described in regional interpretations, but detailed 3D models require better seismic coverage. Onshore 3D is sparse, and the underlying seismic offshore data have not been made freely available and are generally restricted by intellectual property rules and fees.

Now more than ever, energy developments such as shale gas, geothermal and carbon capture and storage (CCS) must withstand public scrutiny and must engender public trust, thus the underlying geological information must be of high quality and freely available for public scrutiny.

In addition to public concerns, there is a need to maximise the efficiency of activities and to develop new technologies for collecting, processing and interpreting geophysical data. The NGS is designed to deliver these goals to underpin future use of the subsurface.

Currently, the most detailed freely available subsurface geological models are primarily regional basin reports for onshore and a series of collaborative atlases for the offshore (e.g. the Millennium Atlas and the Southern Permian Basin Atlas). The most detailed new models are the results of the BGS/DECC studies of onshore basins in the UK for unconventional resources, but these are based on generally old 2D regional datasets that are of poor quality in some areas. These seismic data were acquired by the oil and gas industry, the Coal Authority and BGS, and are freely available for viewing on the UK Onshore Geophysical Library interactive map.

The NGS will take understanding to a new level and provide freely available high quality data and interpretation, which can be reused to develop new detailed models of the subsurface.

Selection of survey areas

The overall aim of the NGS is to build better models based on freely available data that will help develop resources and manage and protect the environment. Selecting the key areas will depend on interest from stakeholders, including government and industry. Following initial discussions, BGS has proposed that the Carboniferous basins of northern England could be chosen as the first survey areas, dependent on stakeholder interest. This would complement work already completed as part of the BGS/DECC/oil industry offshore Palaeozoic part of the 21st Century Exploration Roadmap. Recent licence awards for oil and gas exploration have focused on these areas, which are highlighted for conventional and unconventional exploration. Parts of the basins have been considered for geothermal energy exploration and in some areas, the salts of the overlying Permo-Triassic host important mineral deposits and underground gas storage caverns. Recent flooding highlights the need for detailed groundwater and aquifer modelling in these areas.

By focusing on northern England Carboniferous basins, there is an opportunity to complete studies across a distinct geological region and provide data with multiple uses. Under the NGS scheme, significantly larger surveys could be acquired that could provide unrivalled regional geological data and understanding.

Public national good science

NGS data will be collected to a grid agreed between BGS, the UK Oil and Gas Authority/DECC and the funding participants. All partners will have input into the survey parameters, processing and area of survey. Data will be freely released over a much shorter timescale than individual licence data. Crucially, the data will be available for independent interpretation and challenge. In addition, the field data will be available for reprocessing, and any reprocessed data will also be available freely.

Key public good science outcomes will be:

  • a step-change in the resolution of BGS 3D geological models
  • opportunities to generate better resolution seismic imaging through access to reprocessed data
  • a public dataset available to academia and industry
  • data to underpin geoscience research
  • a demonstration of a new way of working that can be extended to the offshore
  • to develop realistic 3D subsurface models with reduced uncertainty in target areas for decision making
  • to provide high quality targeted subsurface information at different depths for shallow groundwater, deep geothermal resources, hydrocarbon prospectivity, mineral deposits, overburden analysis, geohazard identification, high resolution fault mapping
  • to provide underpinning data for safe and efficient management of the subsurface

Academic opportunities

The NGS will provide a new dataset for leading-edge research in universities and research centres across the UK.

New research is required to understand how the upper part of the crust behaves in relation to subsurface activities, both in relation to natural surface systems and human infrastructure, and lives and livelihoods. The NGS will work closely with Energy Security and Innovation Observing System for the Subsurface (ESIOS) infrastructure to enhance imaging of the subsurface, allowing understanding of fluid flow, geomechanical change, biological processes and quantitative uncertainty. It will allow upscale testing of laboratory-based science and models.

Direct access to new 3D seismic data opens up opportunities for wide-azimuth and/or seismic anisotropy techniques for monitoring the immediate impacts of subsurface drilling, production, injection and fracturing.

Benefits to the UK

The NGS will have benefits for academic, industrial, regulatory and environmental communities by bringing together excellent research, knowledge and data.

The data provided will be of direct interest to:

  • regulators and legislators concerned with appropriate management of the subsurface and its interaction with surface processes
  • management of contaminated land and the development of contaminant transport models
  • environmental consultancies
  • onshore oil and gas exploration and production (conventional and unconventional)
  • gas storage (natural and CCS)
  • geothermal schemes
  • groundwater management
  • mineral resources (coal, potash, gypsum, salt and others)
  • local and national planners

Through the establishment of the NGS, the UK will be able to manage the subsurface better, and improve regulations and environmental security assurance.


Contact for more information.