Climate change: Inside Northern Ireland’s Core Store

Fossil samples from Northern Ireland
Image caption,The Core Store houses rock specimens that can tell the history of the earth below our feet

If you look behind a nondescript warehouse door just outside Belfast, you’ll be able to travel about 600 million years back in time.

It’s here that you’ll find 30,000 rock specimens and cores – intact rock samples obtained by drilling with special tools – that run the length of 20km.

Welcome to the Core Store.

This is the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland’s (GSNI) library of cores, minerals and samples, which have been collected since its inception in 1947.

And for GSNI science programme manager Kirstin Lemon, they tell a “fabulous story” of 600,000 millennia, buried beneath our feet.

Kirstin Lemon
Image caption,GSNI science programme manager Kirstin Lemon

A huge amount of climate change took place in that time frame, Kirsty said, which saw the area we now know as Northern Ireland be everything from a tropical sea, to a warm desert and an icy wasteland.

“We’ve got everything with regards to the climate change sphere, so we can look at past aspects of climate change and we can use the Core Store to educate about that.

“We can also put it in the context of current climate change and how those two are related.”

Jimmy Graham
Image caption,Jimmy Graham said the Core Store is about more than geothermal potential

Knowing what’s beneath our feet and how it has changed over the years helps engineers and policy makers when it comes to making decisions about how to use our natural resources.

Thanks to these samples, they know there is potential to use the Earth itself for heating without having to undertake expensive drilling.

That theory is being tested in two geothermal pilot schemes.

The technology is already in use in several locations around Northern Ireland, including Riddell Hall at Queen’s University Belfast and the visitor’s centre at the Giant’s Causeway.

A 6 million year old rock
Image caption,This rock dates back six million years

“The Geological Survey provides important scientific information to the Department for the Economy (DfE) and other government departments to inform decision-making on a range of policy developments,” said Jimmy Graham, from the energy unit at the DfE.

For him, the Core Store is about more than geothermal potential.

“The survey provides the energy team with data, technical advice on a range of different energy issues, such as shallow and deep geothermal energy, critical mineral resources and also other potential geological solutions for decarbonisation.”

Silent storytellers

Rob Raine
Image caption,Rob said cores tell stories about Northern Ireland’s underground we would never be able to understand otherwise

For senior energy geologist Rob Raine, the samples he works with are silent storytellers of Northern Ireland’s underground past.

“We have cores that go down 2.8km underneath the surface, so that’s an environment which is very hard for us to understand.

“Some of these cores are really crucial to be able to map the subsurface to understand what’s going on beneath us.”

Rocking the economy

The contents of the drawers, trays and storage boxes also help explain some of Northern Ireland’s infrastructure challenges.

“When you drive around the Antrim Coast Road, you’ll see that there are black rocks, those are lavas and they’re on top of white rocks,” he said.

“The white rocks are the equivalent of chalk.

“Underneath, we have Jurassic mud rocks and that’s the reason why that coast road is so beautiful but also why there are issues with landslip there.”

The rocks also play a part in the economy of Northern Ireland, through their contribution to tourism.

“All of our geoparks and the world heritage sites are only here because of our internationally-important geological heritage,” said Kirstin.

“If you think about the size of Northern Ireland, we’re actually very, very small, but we’re really big hitters when it comes to geological heritage.

“We’ve such a diversity of geology, we’ve got every single geological time period bar one and you can see all of those within about an hour and a half.

“What’s in this building provides vital information on our subsurface so we can better understand it, so we can better manage it and more importantly, how we can better use it but in a sustainable way.

“So it really benefits people all across Northern Ireland.”

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