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The geoscience time machine

The 21st Glossop Medal winner, David Shilston, describes a time machine approach as an essential tool for engineering geologists – present, past and future

Words by Mr David Shilston, Deputy Editor-in-Chief
1 March 2022

Close-up of obsidian

A former president of the Geological Society, with over 40 years of professional experience, David Shilston provides a glimpse into how his interest and passion for geosciences were sparked from a young age.

“My father and an uncle encouraged me with trips to places of interest and gifts of fossils, rocks and minerals,” recalls David. “From a piece of razor-sharp black obsidian that my uncle brought back from Iceland to earning the Geologist Proficiency Badge in the Scouts, these experiences have influenced my wish to assist teachers in their essential efforts to teach and encourage interest in geology and physical geography.”

Key to the past – and future
Whilst accustomed to considering the past, geoscientists are increasingly being called on to apply their expertise to the future, to predict the impact of climate change and anthropogenic activity.

In the context of applying practical geological engineering approaches to civil engineering and environmental projects, David reveals in his Glossop lecture, Engineering geology and the geoscience time machine, that “the answer is much more than a description of the materials logged in an excavation or a borehole… It requires a mental time machine that enables us to investigate and understand the conditions, processes and materials that occur over geological time and recently.”

The message is clear: engineering geologists need to be effective engineering geological time-travellers. “That is, develop one’s geoscience powers of imagination and visualisation, maintain a broad interest in the geosciences, identify and understand present-day geological and geomorphological processes as analogues, and make good use of case studies to learn from experience and engage interest.”

David suggests there are two big challenges for geoscience, with one being “the progressive reduction in the number of students who are studying geoscience”.

The other, related to the first, is “the impact of the rapidly developing global energy revolution. The geosciences are essential not only for long-established industries, but also for the rapidly growing renewable and zero-carbon energy sectors, such as the ground engineering skills required for windfarms and the wide range of skills needed for carbon capture and storage.”

With climate change, more severe and frequent geohazards are likely. David highlights that engineering geology and geoenvironmental management are therefore fields of increasing relevance, yet are “often invisible to the general public”.

“If I were to be asked to name just one project that will be of exciting interest in the next few decades, I would note the Geological Disposal Facility that will be developed as a permanent home for the UK’s nuclear waste. It is a large and multi-faceted project, that has an important public dimension – and geoscience skills and the public understanding of science and engineering will be at the centre of the project.”

Interview by Sade Agard, Lead Geologist, Chair at Area Code Foundation, and member of the Geoscientist Contributors Team.

David Shilston
David Shilston is Atkins’ technical director for engineering geology and Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Geoscientist. He was awarded the 21st Glossop Medal, the most prestigious award of the Engineering Group of the Geological Society, and delivered his Glossop Lecture in November 2021. The 21st Glossop Lecture is available here: youtube.com/watch?v=CAJDtSrrA4w 

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