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Behind the oak door

Incoming president, Jon Gluyas, discusses his career, experiences working with the Society, and what his time as President might hold 

14 June 2024

What first drew you to geology?

A friend at school gave me a little piece of galena. It was only about 2 cm long, but the weight fascinated me, as did the metallic lustre. I then consumed the contents of any geology book I could find, such as the little colour Hamlyn Guides for rocks, minerals, and fossils. Later, on a Scout camping trip in Yorkshire, I signed up for geology and got to see the Lower Carboniferous limestones of Whernside and tracked the line of the Dent Fault – I was hooked! I also become the first Scout to obtain the Geology Badge.

The limestone pavement at Ingleborough, looking towards Whernside in the Yorkshire Dales. It was during a Scout camping trip to Whernside that Jon became hooked on geology

At school, a few of us lobbied for and got lessons in O-Level geology. I was desperate to go to university and learn more about Earth. Despite my German master suggesting that there was “fat chance” of me studying geology at university, I went to Sheffield to study undergraduate geology, and to Liverpool for a PhD.

I was then ready to go to work and joined BP. Starting in Aberdeen in December 1981, I lived and worked around the world on exploration and production projects, in China, Norway, and Venezuela. After 15 years with BP, I moved into the independent sector, eventually forming Acorn Oil & Gas, which became the first company in the UK to go back into a completely abandoned North Sea field and get it going again – something that has become commonplace over the last 20 or 30 years.

I began to realise that, despite the positive influence petroleum use has had on global development, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are impacting the climate and acidifying the oceans. When Durham University approached me about taking up the new Chair in Geoenergy, Carbon Capture & Storage, it was difficult to say no. For me, it was like opening Pandora’s box. I started to look at the energy transition and how scientists could support that, which ultimately led me to leadership of Durham Energy Institute, the mission of which is to help deliver net zero on a local-to-global scale in line with the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN. That’s been a massive change in my career, and a positive way of thinking about how geoscience can serve society without it costing the Earth. I’d like future generations to enjoy the Earth as much as I have.

What geoscience developments are you excited about?

As an undergraduate, I wrote an essay on meteorite geochemistry and the geology of the Solar System. What planetary missions have shown over the last few years is that my essay was completely wrong! We’ve learned so much about the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and the icy worlds beyond Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Those missions are some of the most exciting scientifi c developments we’ve seen on a global scale in my lifetime.

I’m now involved with the search for natural hydrogen. If we can fi nd it in substantial quantities and displace some petroleum use, it could change the world in a positive way. I’m also intimately involved with the development of geothermal energy in the UK, something that’s not been done in any appreciable amount until very recently. Here we could see the whole of heating in the UK supplied by low-grade geothermal heat instead of burning gas.

Which experiences will be useful for your role as President?

My career has taken me around the world. I’ve had the good fortune to work with different people and cultures, and to see the world from different perspectives. I’ve worked with some phenomenal teams and people, and learnt to look after those I work with and, on occasion, help them into their next role. I think these experiences will be useful for helping the Society develop its offerings to both Fellows and the greater breadth of society.

How has the Society changed during your time as a Fellow?

I first joined in 1978, at a time when the main benefit was access to the journals and library. The Society has evolved since then. I’ve participated in dozens of conferences and events, and what we see nowadays is a much wider offering, not just for Fellows, but for the public as well.

I served on Council from 2003 until 2007, and then again since June 2023. What struck me the second time is how well the whole team seems to gel together, the innovations generated by interacting more with our neighbours and society in general, and the openness with which people talk about the challenges. It’s been a bit of a revelation. The Society is forward looking and the opportunity to help folk understand what Earth does for them is really positive.

What are the most important challenges the Society faces?

There are several challenges but they are part and parcel of what geoscience as a whole faces today. I’m not sure we know who we are; we call ourselves geologists, geophysicists, geoscientists… A number of times I’ve been asked, “What’s the difference between an Earth scientist and a geoscientist?”, and I’ve struggled sometimes to give an adequate answer.

People don’t recognise what geoscience and Earth does for them. The reality is that if we don’t grow it, we mine it. The homes we live in, the vehicles we travel in, the energy we take for granted, all come from a hole in the Earth. It’s our place to show society just how important Earth is for them. Without that recognition, society will continue to be profligate with their use of resources.

We also need to get the message across of how much fun you’re going to have learning about Earth. Look at the great interest shown by the public on topics such as dinosaurs, meteorites, and planetary geology. These are really engaging topics, so let’s work with that.

What do you hope to achieve during your Presidency?

I’m looking forward to being President with a little trepidation. I recognise that the Presidency is a very large job, much larger than I probably anticipated. It’s great to be in the company of some phenomenal geoscientists, and taking over from Ruth, who has been an amazing President, will be tough. My memory also goes back to past Presidents such as Charles Curtis, Wally Pitcher, Tony Harris, and, more recently, my mentor and friend, Bryan Lovell, who made a real difference. I hope to be able to add to that.

What I hope to achieve is reaching out. Improving the understanding of geoscience and, as a consequence, improving the numbers of people who are interested in geoscience and recognise it as a key part of today’s society. There’s great opportunity – whether it’s government, schools, retired folk, anyone – to learn a bit more about geoscience. So, what I’d like to see over the next few years is removing some of the mystery from what’s behind our old solid oak door on Piccadilly that leads into Burlington House. Let’s show the world what goes on and share it with them.

Professor Jon Gluyas is the incoming President of the Geological Society, and Chair in Geoenergy, Carbon Capture & Storage at Durham University, UK.

This is an excerpt from the podcast episode Geo Conversations: Jon Gluyas. Listen to the full interview at Geoscientist.Online

The limestone pavement at Ingleborough, looking towards Whernside in the Yorkshire Dales. It was during a Scout camping trip to Whernside that Jon became hooked on geology

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