About Professor Simon Haslett

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Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Professor of Physical Geography and Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Floods in South Wales

It has been raining fairly constantly in South Wales since last Wednesday 21st November. I ventured out yesterday, whilst the sun was shining briefly, and took a few photographs of the floods over the floodplain of the Olway Brook, near Usk, Monmouthshire, South Wales (UK). Some interesting geomorphological features and processes are clearly seen in the photographs. Unfortunately, a number of buildings have been flooded, but no-one has been hurt in this area. Further details of my research on the Olway Brook floodplain is available in two previous blog posts: http://profsimonhaslett.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/river-flooding-in-wales-june-2012.html and http://profsimonhaslett.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/flood-history-in-south-wales-valley.html.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Geology and fossils of Usk, Monmouthshire

The rocks of Usk in south-east Wales are famously full of fossils and this month they will be the subject of a public lecture of mine and the publication of a new booklet Usk Fossils that I have written. I grew up in Usk and was inspired to follow my geoscience career partly by the rocks I encountered around this central Monmouthshire town. As a student, I undertook numerous projects on the rocks of Usk and became familiar with the fossils. Since then however, my academic research has focused mainly on coastal landscapes and he has become well-known for his theory that a flood that occurred in the Bristol Channel in 1607 was perhaps due to a tsunami, and featured on numerous BBC programmes.

Cover of new booklet Usk Fossils
This month, I go back to my roots in giving a public lecture for the charity ‘Hope and Homes for Children’ on the Geology of Usk, and also publishing Usk Fossils, an illustrated booklet guide to fossils of Usk. It’s been quite a lot of fun going back to relearn the stuff I’d forgotten about the geology of Usk, but once I got into it I remembered it quite clearly. I hope the audience at the lecture and readers of the booklet will find it interesting too.

Usk geological history includes classic rocks such as from the Silurian Period with its shallow tropical sea teaming with life, the relatively barren Old Red Sandstone and, more recently, deposits laid down by glaciers of the last ice age. When I was in University I remember finding a quote from a Victorian journal, which is included on the cover of the booklet, that made me realise how well-known the rocks of Usk are, it said: "Not for the beauty of its scenery ... nor yet for the romantic history of the castle ... nor yet again for the excellent salmon fishing ... was the visit made. Usk has great attractions of a geological kind, its rocks abound in fossils”!

The fossils from Usk may also have played an important part in scientific theory. Alfred Russell Wallace, alongside Charles Darwin, developed the theory of evolution and Wallace was born in Usk in 1823. The rocks behind his house where he lived are full of fossils and, although his family moved away when he was five years old, it is highly likely that he saw the fossils as a child and it is wonderful to think that Usk fossils may have sowed a seed that influenced his later thoughts on evolution.”

The public lecture the Geology of Usk is in the Sessions House, Usk, on the evening of Thursday 15th November (admission £10), and the booklet Usk Fossils is available to buy directly from Amazon, priced £4.99.

Friday, 29 June 2012

River flooding in Wales: June 2012

As an introduction, you may want to read my article on flooding in Wales that appeared in the Western Mail today: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2012/06/29/careful-study-needed-if-wales-is-to-make-good-use-of-floodplains-91466-31288255/

My previous blog post on this topic earlier this year contains references to my published academic papers regarding this research: http://profsimonhaslett.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/flood-history-in-south-wales-valley.html

I made the following video to support the public understanding of this scientific research, which is available on YouTube, and below that an interview I gave today to BBC Radio Wales:

Monday, 19 March 2012

British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2012: Day 1

I've just spent an enjoyable and interesting Day 1 at the 2nd British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR) at Warwick University.The event has grown considerably since the inaugural conference (BCUR11) last year at the University of Central Lancashire.

The conference was convened by Dr Paul Taylor of the Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning at Warwick University who introduced the opening keynote given by Gillian Hundt, Professor of Social Science in Health at Warwick. Gillian's talk 'Reflections on learning during my research career: what no one tells you' drew upon her experiences of undertaking anthropological research amongst canal folk of the French-German border, the Bedouin of sub-Saharan Africa, and in Gaza. She considered formal and experiential learning, and touched upon ethical issues and how the researcher may influence her research subjects. Gillian concluded with some advice for the 250 or so delegates, who were mainly undergraduates, in that they need (1) the ability to deal with failure, (2) separation of personal and professional ego, (3) networking and collaboration, (4) dealing with authorship issues, (5) willingness to draft papers and accept peer-review, (6) need to understand the letters you might receive, and (7) mentorship in transitioning and career planning in the real world.

Professor Nigel Thrift, a fellow geographer and now Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, then formally welcomed the delegates. He stated that Warwick is a research-intensive university, but has a twin strategy of both research and teaching excellence. He emphasised several times the importance of undertaking original research, whether at the professorial or undergraduate level.

The afternoon saw the first of the undergraduate research sessions. There were five five parallel sessions and I attended the 'Energy and Innovation' theme as that was closest to my research area of geography and sustainable development. I attended the following excellent presentations:
  • Annabelle Wilson (University of Chester) Risk reduction strategies in a disaster-prone developing country: disaster management at a community level in Jamaica.
  • Lucy Vierbergen (Bournemouth University) Recycling in the hotel industry.
  • Grace Lowe (University of Nottingham) Next generation renewable power sources: developing high performance dye sensitised solar cells.
  • Stavros Stavrikkos and Tam Minh Trinh (London School of Economics) Determinants of successful implementation of environmental policies across London universities: the role of information, education and incentives.
  • Thanh Giang Tran (University of Warwick) Creating digital content for portable planetariums.
  • Sarah Lewington, Catherine Lamb, and Clare Smith (Nottingham Trent University) The Quantified Self.
  • Nirupa Rao (University of Warwick) The new face of the news: Indian television journalism in English and the normalisation of neo-liberalism.
  • Selina Ali (University of Wales: Trinity Saint David) Applications of 3D digital methods in nautical archaeology: the Barland's Farm Romano-Celtic boat, a case study.
As a member of the Steering Group, I attended the business meeting to decide on the venue for BCUR 2013 which, following a presentation, was awarded to the University of Plymouth. The conference dinner followed and both Paul Taylor and Professor Stuart Hampton-Reeves (Chair of the Steering Group) gave deserved thanks to the organisers, presenters and delegates. Now looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Mendip Hills: Geology and Landforms

Many thanks to the organisers and delegates of the U3A Mendip Study Day. Here is a webinar of the presentation. Also, my article on the Mendip Hills is now available on Amazon Kindle.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Geology and landforms of the Mendip Hills

On Thursday 1st March 2012 I am giving a lecture at 2pm at the University of the Third Age (U3A) Mendip Hills Study Day at Draycott Village Hall, near Wells, Somerset. My lecture begins at 2pm not at 9.45am as advertised on the Wells U3A website.

Between 1994 and 2008, whilst I was lecturing in physical geography at Bath Spa University, I undertook research and taught students about the geology and landforms of the Mendip Hills and the surrounding area. During this time I occasionally wrote popular articles for the Yeo Valley Gazette and Mendip Life, later collecting these essays into a chapter on the Mendips in my book Somerset Landscapes: Geology and Landforms published in 2010.

The Mendip Hills are a fascinating upland area. The geology gives a good insight into the dynamics of the earth, with tectonic folding and volcanic activity, and also the nature of past tropical sea environments as indicated by fossils in the rocks. Also, climatic extremes of later geological episodes are evident from lithified desert sands to deposits laid down in the cold conditions of the ice age. The Mendips also boast some internationally famous landforms, including Cheddar Gorge and caves, such as Wookey Hole.

Coastal wetland (Somerset Levels, UK)
Photo: the Somerset Levels viewed from Nyland Hill, a Mendip outlier.

The talk will cover the aspects of geology and landforms that I have studied and written about, and will be illustrated by my own photographs and figures from the Somerset Landscapes book. I look forward to discussing this with delegates of the study day.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Flood history in a South Wales valley

The final report of research that I have been undertaking since 2002 was published in 2011 by the Geological Society of America. The final report brought together new data and data previously presented in a series of articles I published in the Monmouthshire Antiquary (Proceedings of the Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association).

The floodplain deposits laid down in the Usk River system in Monmouthshire yield clues about the role of climate and human activity in shaping the landscape of Wales since the Ice Age, and gives insights into the impact of both sea-level rise and the development of agriculture. The study also reveals that the potential impact of lowland river flooding has increased through the centuries and is greater now than it has ever been.

Using a range of geological, geographical and archaeological techniques, the floodplains of the Usk river system in Monmouthshire in southeast Wales were investigated. Floodplain deposits are laid down when a river floods with at least one layer of sediment usually being deposited every year; these annual deposits record environmental changes very much like tree rings. The Usk River valley was selected because of the thick red deposits (see photo) that have accumulated there and the fact that the River Usk is a tributary of the Severn Estuary; an important global feature reputedly with the second highest tidal range in the World.

The research shows that the floodplains came into existence around 6500 years ago during the Stone Age. This was a time when the melting of the Ice Age glaciers and ice sheets had raised sea level rapidly to flood the South Wales coast. Before this time, the rivers flowed fast through this region on their journey to the distant sea, but the fast rising and encroaching sea ponded back the rivers forcing them to flood. The first sign of this was waterlogging of the Ice Age landscape and the formation of peat many miles inland. Such a scenario of surface waterlogging and increased river flooding may happen again in the future, not necessarily because of climate change, but if a barrage is built across the Severn Estuary to harness tidal energy experts have said that this would cause an instantaneous rise in sea level of around three metres.

The imprint of the rise of agriculture in Wales can also be seen in the floodplain record. The research shows that there has been a tenfold increase in floodplain deposits since before the nineteenth century. This increase is likely due to continued deforestation in the hills of the river catchment, and also due to an increase in ploughing through changing land use. One consequence of this tenfold increase is that towns that lie within the river valleys have become exposed to increased potential impacts of flooding as deposits are laid down. For example, when the Roman’s built the fort of Burrium on a spur of glacial gravel in the Usk valley in the first century AD, the fort lay around one and half metres further above the floodplain than the modern town of Usk does that now occupies the site. Year on year, there has been less space to accommodate floodwaters since Roman times, more so due to agriculture, so that the potential impact of flooding has increased and the town has flooded badly several times during the twentieth century.

Although this study currently focuses on one river valley, the results suggest that it is generally representative of rivers draining into the Severn Estuary. Further work is planned, especially to collect more sediment ages from dating archaeological finds and also through the radiocarbon dating of peat and other organic remains within the floodplain deposits.


Haslett, S. K., 2011. Holocene sedimentation in a pericoastal river system (South Wales, UK): relationship to sea level, human activity, and coastal sediment flux. In: Brown, A. G., Basell, L. S. and Butzer, K. W. (eds), Geoarchaeology, Climate Change, and Sustainability. Geological Society of America Special Paper 476, pp. 93-103.