Rock steady - profile of a geologist

Materials World magazine
2 Feb 2011
Michael Petterson climbing

As a former Assistant Director of the British Geological Survey (BGS), Professor Michael Petterson’s geological dexterity has taken him across the world. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen learns more about a professional journey that has led to work on the second largest copper deposit in the world.

To most, joining a hiking club is nothing else but the opportunity to rotate a knee cap, for Professor Michael Petterson it was the foundations of an acute spatial awareness of his surroundings, and what led him to pursue geology.

It’s easy to see why Petterson is such an advocate of fieldwork at graduate level. He says, ‘We need to make sure we preserve fieldwork skills. It can be regarded as an expensive module due to health and safety and associated expenses of being offsite, but fieldwork is what gives students employability.

‘Typically, students undertake about 20 weeks in total to complete abroad but this could change, with rising tuition fees and government constraints putting pressure on expenditure’.

On a mission

Armed with a first class honours degree in Geology from Leicester University, UK, at the age of 22 he felt ripe to set off for Pakistan to complete a PhD on the Geochemistry and Evolution of the Kohistan Arc in North Pakistan.

He explains, ‘My mission was to investigate how the continental crust of part of the Karakoram-Himalayan mountain chain evolved over time. Plate tectonics is a discovery of the highest order and explains how the Earth functions at a level never dreamt of before the 1960s-1970s.

‘My small contribution in North Pakistan demonstrated how small crustal units between large plates can get caught up and influence continental collision in a number of ways.’

He continues, ‘On a gross macroplanetary scale, plate tectonics teaches us about the “inter-being”, or interchangeability, of type and form between energy (and) matter and the cyclical interplay between rocks, minerals, liquids and energy over time.’

The link between magmas and tectonics, natural hazards and communities, and applying geoscience to real world problems or sustainable development are all areas that Petterson is most passionate about, with the latter having become more and more important.

After completing his PhD, he joined the British Geological Survey and began a project in the Lake District mapping volcanic rocks and applying this knowledge to later inform and create nuclear waste storage solutions for the UK.

Petterson enthuses that one of his personal eureka moments came when studying the complex volcanic area of the Lake District, UK.

He says, ‘The central part of Cumbria comprises several kilometres of complex volcanic strata, some 450 million years old. These deposits resulted from massive eruptions that extruded such large volumes of material that the resulting crustal voids collapsed to produce steep-sided, basin-like structures called calderas, filled in by rocks called ignimbrites.

‘Human history has never witnessed such large-scale devastations as those recorded by Lakeland. It took the fusion of modern concepts in sedimentology, physical volcanology, geochemistry and geophysics to crack the Lake District’s geological code’.

As a result of the project, his team developed a series of caldera-volcanic models to provide a sound understanding of the Lakeland area. Working with engineers and radioactive waste executives, they applied these models to identify areas of West Cumbria that were suitable to store nuclear waste.

Petterson adds, ‘Finding the best geological environment for nuclear waste was a core task. Groundwater is an issue. You also need an area that is low-lying, but not everyone wants to store radioactive waste in their backyard. In Sellafield, West Cumbria, UK, there is a culture of acceptance as they know that it will provide a host of good professional jobs there’.

Into the wild

His secondment with the Overseas Development Agency to the Solomon Islands was his next opportunity to broaden his experience. With 15 PhD and MSc students under his wing, the project involved grilling fieldwork in tropical rainforest environments to map the geology of several associated islands. Here, as a senior geologist, he became more involved in assessing the origins and evolution of island acrs and their metallogenic potential and, in particular, the Ontong Java Plateau and the relationship between gold and copper mineralisation, tectonics and magmatism.

The more international projects he undertook, the stronger his calling was to pursue sustainable development. However, Petterson notes there is a need for preparation as the sector has changed rapidly.

‘There is the increasing need for soft skills such as teamwork, management, strategy and forward planning, along with IT these requirements have come to the front now. As companies look for candidates that can multi-task and lead projects in the future.’

Sustainable development

He adds, ‘Geology requires three-dimensional thinking. If you want a career in geology or even engineering, material science and associated fields and want to work on an international level you need to know your area and research what you are doing for both the country you are visiting and yourself as an organisation to avoid them [people you are working with abroad] being sceptical of your motives. It takes hundreds and thousands of personalised connections, communications, and shared experiences for humans to connect, trust and work together.’

He recalls, that in terms of the value of communication, there was no better example of this than his mission to Afghanistan. This was a Department for International Development-funded project in which he managed to secure £4m to assess the relationship between mining and sustainable development in the east of Kabul. There he led a team designed to ‘strengthen relations, detect mineral resources and deposits and increase the skillset of the people’. The most significant tangible achievement, he notes, was the synthesis and modelling of a databank, the Afghan geological survey.

He explains, ‘We accumulated data for what is now the second biggest unworked copper deposit in the world, east of Kabul, called Aynak. The team also collated data maps, remote and field sensing, and drilling results and developed a 3D computer model to help people understand the depth, shape and structure and grade of deposits of Ayanak and surrounding areas which resulted in an opening to international tenders.’

Yet, he has no illusions on the limitations of ‘Making a difference’ – a concept he explored in his inaugural lecture with the same name on his appointment as Professor of Applied and Environmental Geoscience at Leicester University, UK. At the lecture, ‘Making a Difference: Applications of Geosciences around the World, he asked if sustainable development work such as this can even be quantified or measured in a bid to further understand and explore the extent in which geoscience can impact the decision making process of governments and international policy frameworks.

Although proud of his achievement in Afghanistan, he says ‘Let’s hope Afghanistan attains a long-enough peace to alow the work to blossom.’ What is obvious though, is that it is Petterson’s vast portfolio of first-hand geological work that keeps him confident of the value geoscience has to offer the world’s understanding of both its resources, environmental make up and geological behaviour.

Petterson is now working in Afghanistan on a project funded by the British Council.  

Up close - profile

  • Education: PGCE, Keele University, Geology and Physics from the University of Leicester, UK. BSc (1st Honours) Geology, University of Leicester, UK.
  • Employment highlights: Director of Science Skills and Facilities, British Geological Survey. Senior Geologist, Guyana Geology and Mines Commission. Senior Geologist/ Geochemist, Ministry of Natural Resources, Solomon Islands.
  • Current position: Professor of Applied and Environmental Geoscience at Leicester University, UK.