Protecting our Environment

Preface | 2006 Achievements | Serving a Changing Society | Supporting the Knowledge Economy | Protecting our Environment | Mapping our Earth Resources | Engaging with Society | Co-operating Abroad | Providing a Stimulating Work Environment | Using GSI Services

The protection of Ireland’s environment, both onshore and offshore, loomed large in the work programme of GSI during 2006. As always, groundwater remained a key issue, in the context of supporting implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and providing key information to enable local authority planners to ensure that development proceeds in a manner that offers the best protection to groundwater resources. At the same time significant resources were focused on lands contaminated by past mining, while media attention was attracted by the publication of a comprehensive report on landslide hazards. Biodiversity issues relating to climate change were raised in ongoing research on offshore coral ecosystems while the broader consequences of climate change were addressed through the developing multi-partner work on carbon sequestration.

Groundwater is the most sensitive and extensive source of freshwater in the EU and it is a major source of public water supplies in many regions, including large parts of Ireland (providing 20 – 25% of all drinking water supplies; up to 80% in certain counties). To further ensure its future quality (both chemical and microbial) and availability, the EU Groundwater Directive, a daughter directive of the WFD, was enacted in 2006.

GSI contributes to the work of the Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities in implementing the provisions of the WFD and it will continue to do so for the Groundwater Directive. GSI serves on various committees and working groups established under WFD (see the Appendices to this report), and makes available its growing databases. Based on the WFD characterisation of groundwater bodies nationally, it is evident that 27% of the country’s area – and 61% of groundwater bodies – may be classified as at risk (from both diffuse and point sources).

GSI provides county-based groundwater protection schemes (GWPS) and source protection studies on key groundwater supply sources for local authorities. The importance of the GWPS has been highlighted in a Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government Circular Letter (SP5.03) to County Managers. The letter states that any existing GWPS should be linked to the county development plans in order to integrate environmental protection and the operation of the planning system.

CronebaneAlthough the pace of GWPS work decreased in recent years (partly due to the competing priorities of WFD work), during 2006 schemes were commenced for Counties Cavan and Galway, were completed and updated for Counties Donegal and Monaghan, and interim schemes for Counties Sligo and Westmeath were delivered to the respective county councils. The national aquifer map shows the present national status of GWPS and highlights the importance of providing protection schemes in areas of significant aquifer resources. There are now 36,380 wells and 3,900 karst features in the GSI databases but the substantial additional data collected over the last three years have not been entered as yet. Both the GWPS programme and the implementation of the WFD address the challenge of facilitating balanced regional development without damaging our environment or biodiversity.

A national mine waste project supported by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Exploration and Mining Division (EMD), is tasked with characterising all historic mine sites on a nationwide basis. A team of consultants has been engaged and the programme of data and sample acquisition is underway in several mine districts (both coal and metalliferous). In parallel, a process was completed by year-end to appoint consultants to develop conceptual management plans for the Avoca mine site. As part of the Interreg-funded Celtic Copper Project a pilot plant to treat acid mine drainage at Avoca completed its trials in 2006. This multi-partner project is led by the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board and is now considering the mine heritage potential at Avoca.

Effective planning lies at the heart of environmental protection and GSI in its work ensures that the third (subsurface) dimension can be fully taken into account in critical decision making by planners. GSI responds to planning submissions relating to environmental impact statements and planning applications: it received 97 applications in 2006, a significant increase in activity over 2005 (when 60 applications were received) and its comments relate mainly to geotechnical and heritage issues.

Aquifer map

 The GSI National Aquifer Classification Scheme aims to determine the significance of Ireland’s groundwater resources. It became a topic of media attention in Autumn 2006 during an An Bord Pleanala public hearing regarding an application to site a landfill in Fingal. This provided a public opportunity for GSI staff to discuss its classification scheme more fully.

Ireland requires increased supplies of secure affordable green energy. There is a widespread view that we have not fully tested the indigenous potential to supply these. GSI supplied seabed data to partners who are evaluating Ireland’s offshore hydrocarbons potential. It also continues its participation in the Ministerial Technical Advisory group on the Corrib Gas Project. A new challenge for GSI in 2006, related to our increasing energy consumption, was the potential for geological storage of carbon (see “Responding to Global Warming”).

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It is now clear that global warming is significantly changing our climate and will have serious and perhaps unforeseen consequences. For example, in 2006, an inhabited island in the Bay of Bengal was submerged by rising sea levels, displacing its entire population – and reliable observers predict that increasingly more island and coastal lands will be lost. This reflects rising atmospheric CO2 levels and the associated heightened global temperatures of the last 250 years, driven by our escalating consumption of fossil fuels. CO2 levels reached 382 parts per million (ppm) in 2006, compared with about 280 ppm in 1750, and the “tipping point” of irreversible global warming is foreseen within the coming decade.

Planet Earth, over hundreds of millions of years, has regulated its climate through sedimentation patterns involving carbonate (for example, limestone) and carbonaceous (for example, coal) deposits. Life has tended to flourish when the increased formation of such sediments led to a reduction in atmospheric CO2. The geological record preserves evidence of many cycles of waxing and waning CO2 levels. Although we may take comfort from the fact that irreversible change never set in, even when CO2 concentrations rose to five times current levels, the same geological record indicates that cycle oscillations could be quite rapid, with potentially dire consequences for humans, and other species.

Carbon Dioxide Variations

Globa Temperatures

The Kyoto Protocol represents the international response to the current challenge. In the case of Ireland the recently published climate change strategy2 comprehends a series of remediation measures, which include carbon sequestration. The sequestration, or storage, of CO2 deep underground is an option, which has yet to be assessed in Ireland. Full scale applications have yet to be implemented anywhere, although pilot schemes are in operation in several countries, but recent research has focused on capturing CO2 emissions from fixed point sources (for example, power stations and certain industrial complexes) and storing them in deep geological formations such as depleted oil and gas fields, coal deposits, saline aquifers and mafic/ultramafic rocks.

Geological Storage options for Carbon Dioxide
A schematic diagram illustrating geological storage options for CO2. Diagram copyright of, and reproduced by permission of, Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies, Australia.

GSI, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Sustainable Energy Ireland, Petroleum Affairs Division (D/CMNR) and the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, recently formulated a specification for a preliminary assessment during 2007 of the underground sequestration potential of the island of Ireland, both onshore and offshore. In parallel, under the Government’s Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI) initiative, the EPA and GSI propose to assess the storage potential of deep saline aquifers in the vicinity of Moneypoint Power Station, which currently emits about 10% of Ireland’s CO2 emissions to atmosphere.

1 Reference: Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas
Technologies (Australia)

2 Reference: Monaghan, R., Bazilian, M. and Brennan, G. 2006.
Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage in Ireland: costs, benefits and future potential, Sustainable Energy Ireland, 30pp.



Two well-publicised and significant landslides in 2003 indicated that we in Ireland are subject to significant natural hazards. Subsequently GSI established the Irish Landslides Working Group to examine landslide issues in Ireland. This Group is an all-island multidisciplinary team drawn from universities (University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway) and state agencies (Teagasc, Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government). The resulting report* was published by GSI on behalf of the Group and launched in August 2006 by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Mr. Noel Dempsey, TD. The continuing hazard posed by landslides in Ireland was highlighted in December 2006 when, following six weeks of heavy rainfall, a landslide blocked the road in the scenic Gleniff Horseshoe Valley, County Sligo.

Landslides in Ireland - ReportThis report, the first of its kind to deal with landslides in Ireland, concluded that the incidence of landslides here was previously underestimated. The risk is significant in upland areas, especially where there is peat or there has been recent development, as well as the neighbourhood of cliffs in Northern Ireland. Previous landslides in Ireland have damaged property, disrupted roads, caused social upheaval and even deaths. Thirty landslides have been recorded in the last 15 years and an island-wide database lists a total of 117 incidents to date. However, a recent GSI study in the Briefne uplands of Sligo and Leitrim documented 700 incidents in that region alone, suggesting that many thousands of similar incidents may have gone unrecorded over the rest of the country. With the current climate change and intensifying development, many parts of Ireland may be subject to an increased incidence of landslides.

There is a continuing need to acquire more information on their nature and occurrence. We need to increase public awareness of landslide hazards - and the media publicity following the report’s publication was very welcome in this regard. There is also a need to ensure that landslide issues are fully integrated into the planning process. Further research is required to determine which areas and which materials are most susceptible to future landslides. It is worth noting that the December 2006 landslide occurred in a zone which the GSI study indicated had a high susceptibility to landslides. This suggests that further similar studies would increase our predictive ability concerning future landslides.

*Creighton, Ronnie (Editor) 2006. Landslides in Ireland. A Report of the Irish Landslides Working Group. Geological Survey of Ireland. 109 pages. Click here to download report. (3Mb file).



Cold-water corals which form mounds along the edge of our continental shelf are special and sensitive ecosystems which can be impacted by climate change, fishing activity or indeed glacial phases. It is critical that we understand what influences their growth and location if we are to manage them effectively. Over the past year the initial research results have become available from the drilling of the Challenger Mound on the Porcupine Bank. The purpose of the drilling was to investigate its development. Formed in seawater depths of 600-900m, it has a height of 200m. Although a small number of mounds have a thriving coral biota (especially Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata), most are covered by dead coral rubble or are buried by sediment. The drilling was undertaken in 2005 by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), with scientists from University College Cork and GSI forming part of the multidisciplinary scientific team.

Coral sampleThe coral-bearing section of the Challenger Mound was formed between 1.95 and 0.46 million years ago. It is composed of coral remains set in a muddy matrix of terrigenous clay and calcareous nanofossils. This sequence of sediments shows pronounced recurring cycles which may be related to glacial and interglacial phases – the coral growth predominating in the latter. One theory for the growth of these structures is essentially oceanographic, arguing that nutrient-rich currents provide food to the filter-feeding corals, which grow where there is a stable substrate. An alternative hypothesis suggests that hydrocarbon seepage may promote favourable conditions for deep-sea corals. No significant hydrocarbon seepage has been detected to date suggesting that it is not a necessary condition for coral mound formation here. The alternative influences of microbial or oceanographic factors in mound formation remain to be tested. Because cold-water corals are sensitive to conditions such as water temperature, nutrient conditions and current strength, their mineralogy, assemblage and geochemistry may provide vital records of climate change over time.

Based on: Ferdelman. T.G., et al. IODP Expedition 307 drills cold-water coral mound along the Irish continental margin. Scientific Drilling No. 2, March 2006, pages 11-16.


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