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Britain's strata have been mapped in three dimensions for thefirst time claims the British Geological Survey.

Damon Sch³nmann donned 3D glasses for a virtual tour.

The new 3D visualisation facility at the British Geological Survey (BGS) really leaps off the wall and into the room. Think Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise's character is able to manipulate cyberinformation that has appeared in front of him out of thin air.

Walking among the ground layers that extend several metres from the wall where they have been projected gives a feeling that science fact is catching up with science fiction. The £150,000 project has been aboutf ive years in the making.

Although the system, driven by GoCad software, has been used for geological mapping before, the BGS believes it is the first time the whole of Britain has been modelled in this way. The software has been used to reproduce the strata down through the full thickness of the crust.

BGS geoscience IT specialist Bruce Napier says: 'Lots of companies use this stereo visualisation stuff. But in terms of modelling the 3D geology, it hasn't been done before in the UK, although a simple geological model has been made of Holland.' As a floating mouse pointer passes over each layer, a label appears denoting the type of material. 'This is capturing the geologist's vision in a way people can use, ' Napier says.

'The original digital and spatial modelling programme was to move us from a haphazard 3D modelling and 2D mapping culture into a systematic 3D modelling culture, so we had to make all our databases compatible and join everything together.'

As well as showing a wealth of strata information in an easily digestible way, it also displays earthquake foci as white spheres and displays about 30 major faults.

Napier explains that a lot of the information used to create the model of Britain came from data that had been lying around in map drawers for years.

BGS parliamentary and media liaison project leader Hilary Heason adds: 'We've gone from water colours and wellington boots to this.' The BGS recently used the system for a coastal study in Humberside, where landslips threatened a railway line running close to the top of the cliffs. To predict where the next slip might occur, geologists laser scanned the cliff and used the system to map their results.

Build your own model

The BGS has also been developing another 3D geological surveying and ground investigation system.

The result, GSI 3D, is a collaboration between the BGS and the University of Cologne's HansGeorg Sobisch, and makes use of the wealth of borehole information the BGS has accumulated since its creation 170 years ago.

The system was recently used to model strata in the Thames Gateway development area. Unlike the GoCaD system, the images do not leap off the screen so 3D glasses are not required.

Users can select locations and within minutes build a simple 3D geological frame.

This can show surface level contours and varying degrees of geology, depending on the borehole data available.

From this initial model, a more complex version can be built.

Radioactive material storage

Last month the government released information on possible sites for storing radioactive waste that were selected in the 1980s.

With recent moves to look again at suitable locations, the BGS believes its modelling system may have a part to play.

It says the models of strata throughout the UK provide a convenient forum where participants can 'walk' among the areas under discussion.

BGS geo-microbiologist Julia West says the 3D visualisation would be valuable to see where waste would go. 'It would be useful for performance assessment for a possible repository site where you're taking into account hydrogeology etc. All that information suddenly comes to life for a non-specialist but colleagues can also see it in a different way, ' she says.

BGS core store

The BGS was formally created in 1835 and the wealth of geological data it has since acquired is underpinned by the contents of its huge core store at Keyworth near Nottingham. Its manager, June Wright, says it contains 200km of core and more than a million specimens collected by hand. The store also has a fossil museum of 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 items.

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