Revealing Earth's Sub-Surface Secrets

Revealing Earth's Sub-Surface Secrets - Professor John Ludden

The Executive Director of the British Geological Survey’s passion for ancient rocks was sparked by a Lancaster University field trip.

Professor John Ludden (Environmental Sciences, 1973, County)  has spent his working life “with one foot in the sea and one in old rocks”.
What unites the two is the search to understand what the chemistry of the volcanic rocks in the Earth’s crust reveal about the formation of our planet billions of years ago. 

Today John runs the British Geological Survey, the organisation charged with monitoring and researching the UK’s landmass. But when he arrived at Lancaster, he had no intention of becoming a geochemist. 

“I loved fishing when I was growing up and thought I would have a career cleaning up rivers,” John says. But a summer mapping project in Scotland captured his imagination and changed the course of his life. 

“I went off to study volcanic rocks, bringing some back to analyse in the chemistry labs. I became very interested in volcanoes and suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life”. 

A PhD studying a volcano in the Indian Ocean followed and a few years later John moved to work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA and then to the University of Montreal in Canada . 

The Canadian Shield, one of the oldest sections of the Earth’s crust on the planet, provided a perfect place for John to study ancient volcanic processes. 

John helped to lead the multi-million dollar Lithoprobe research project: “the largest geophysical experiment on the crust of the earth, aiming to image the entire landmass of Canada and investigate how it was created through time. “Understanding how earth forms can seem esoteric but a lot of these volcanic systems are associated with large mineral deposits: understanding the volcanic processes can help identify potential sites of these deposits.” 

John was also working with another ‘Big Science’ project, the International Ocean Drilling Programme, travelling as chief scientist on a research ship investigating the oldest part of the oceanic crust. 

“I was still working on volcanic rocks looking at how sea water interacts with them. Understanding how the tectonics of the earth was behaving three billion years ago based on the chemistry of the rocks today.” 

Then in the mid 1990s John moved to France, initially running one of the country’s top geochemistry facilities and then becoming Head of Earth Sciences at France’s National Research Council

“I was becoming a science leader , rather than doing the frontline science myself. I am quite a good geochemist, but I had come to recognise that there were people around me who were better so I decided to support them: selling what they do to Government, getting them research funding and bringing people together to build a critical mass to do ‘Big Science’.” 

He had no intention of ever returning to the UK, but the offer of running the British Geological Survey (BGS), with a remit to monitor and study the sub surface of the UK, tempted him back home.

“The British Geological Survey was drifting off course and becoming a consultancy. It was losing  its research soul. I wanted to bring good applied science back to the BGS and for it to maintain its name as a trusted advisor to Government and industry. It is an applied science organisation so I worked to improve our links with the fundamental side, to get people together and build joint projects with universities.” 

One of the biggest joint projects John is developing at the BGS is the creation of two vast underground laboratories to do the basic science that needs to be done to optimise underground energy storage, carbon capture and storage and to develop a much more efficient, and much cleaner, fracking technology. “I’ve turned the BGS around into a world class research institute, I’m very proud of that.” 

John’s love affair with the underground took a romantic turn in 1998 when he met his future wife, Svetlana, above the the deepest drill hole ever drilled, to twelve and a half miles under the surface of the Earth, when she was working as a translator for the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

And BGS scientists are now working with Lancaster volcanologists, reminding John of the field trip that first got him hooked on geochemistry.