Systems geology

Systems geology views geology as a set of interacting objects and processes that function as a whole. It aims to harmonise many aspects of geological information with the e-scientists' vision of a comprehensive global knowledge system.

Systems Geology cover

Instead of thinking in terms of maps, memoirs and scientific papers, we consider here how some geological information could be organised in terms of a model representing the solid Earth as a system, supported by a geological cyberenvironment.

The systems view could overcome some deficiencies in traditional methods of sharing geological knowledge, and store the information in a structure more closely resembling the organisation of geological knowledge in the human brain.

Many of the methods described here are already in routine use in geological surveying (see, for example, British Geological Survey — Our Research). One aim of systems geology is to exploit the potential of cyber-technology to bring such methods into a more comprehensive, integrated infrastructure for regional geology.

What is the purpose of this webpage?

This webpage links to a basic introduction and to a desk study of a detailed scenario for systems geology (downloadable from links near the end of this page).

They are primarily addressed to geologists with an interest in information or computing technology and in the long-term potential of more comprehensive and coherent future systems.

As planning a journey is easier after deciding where you want to go, it is hoped that these documents will encourage discussion and clarification of the intended destination and a flexible strategy for development in step with the advancing technology.

The structure of knowledge and information

Systems geology leads to a more integrated view of geology and can overcome some inadequacies of conventional representations.

Knowledge is stored in the human brain as a complex, interconnected network.

But human beings communicate information as stories and pictures (or their equivalents) in a different structure, namely, linear or two-dimensional sequences, such as:

  • narratives, as in scientific papers and lectures
  • graphics, as in maps, diagrams and images
  • mathematics, as in quantitative modelling

The information is created from the knowledge in one mind, and communicated through interacting with the knowledge in another. Conventionally, scientific information is communicated in the linear forms of publications, stored in libraries, and used and reused without alteration.

The developing cyberinfrastructure could support systems geology, and achieve greater flexibility by using two separate interlinked structures. One can store and manage information structured as a network; the other can derive information from the network as linear sequences for communication.

The structure of systems geology

Systems geology relates to the emerging cyberinfrastructure, benefitting from its powerful tools for analysis and communication, its links to global knowledge, and its wide range of input, output and processing devices from smart phones to super-computers.

Information from many authors can be recorded, stored and analysed in a systems structure of interconnected, revisable modules.

They can be archived in an information pool that mimics the network structure of the human brain and builds on the structure of our geological knowledge.

Aspects of observations and interpretations can be recorded in modules of appropriate form, such as text descriptions and explanations, components of geological maps and stratigraphic charts, workflows, algorithms, datasets, quantitative analyses, simulations, photographs and images. The relationships and dependencies among the modules and their provenance and history must be recorded.

Relevant information can be selected and extracted from the pool and communicated as sequences of modules. The modules can be static or interactive and displayed sequentially or side-by-side as appropriate.

Users could create their own sequences by following links, and adjust the forms of presentation to match their specific needs. Or they could access pre-defined sequences created by intermediaries, with the flexibility to choose the format for presenting the results.

The objectives

Geological survey organisations are well placed to carry forward their authoritative view of regional geology, rebasing it from the geological map to a solid Earth systems model.

The systems approach focuses on efficient provision of specific and relevant technical information. In geology, it seems particularly appropriate to the regional geoscience information methodically collected and maintained by geological survey organisations.

The complexity of interacting topics could be clarified by a shared, explicit framework for a solid Earth systems model (sEsm).

The sEsm can be organised as a multidimensional map that includes the continuous axes of space, time and granularity, and the ontologies of objects, processes, text descriptions and explanations.

A consistent framework makes it easier to record, link, update, analyse, find, and trace information.

The potential benefits include:

  • a more informative, integrated, complete and coherent record
  • more powerful techniques for finding, analysing and communicating information
  • greater flexibility in presentation and revision

Planning ahead

However, bringing existing geoscience information into the context of global systems developments is a major long-term task. It requires:

  • a widely acceptable design, modifiable as experience is gained and the infrastructure evolves
  • an integrated, widely accepted and flexible strategy to carry forward and build on our legacy of existing information and experience
  • major reorganisation of existing information

Reports and downloads

As a contribution to defining these tasks, the following documents are available as pdf downloads:

Bibliographical reference

Loudon, T V. 2012. A scenario for systems geology: Suggestions concerning the emerging geosciences knowledge system and the future geological map. British Geological Survey Research Report RR/11/05. 373 pp. ISBN: 978 0 85272 710 2.


Contact Holger Kessler or John Laxton for more information.


Network: A set of components or modules, linked together by multiple connections.
Narrative: A message, story or discourse relating a sequence of, say, real and imagined events, descriptive features, and explanations.
Cyberinfrastructure: An integrated assemblage of computing, information and communication facilities, deploying the combined capacity of multiple sites to provide a framework to underpin research and discovery, typically with broad access and end-to-end coordination.
System: A set of interacting parts that function as a whole. The systems approach involves study of linkages or interfaces between the component activities.
Module: A subdivision of a system that can be combined with others in various ways to perform different functions, can be independently replaced or upgraded, or can be plugged into a system to extend its functionality.
Geological survey organisation: A state, national or federal institution employed to maintain and advance the knowledge of geosciences, traditionally centred on production of geological maps, reports, and archives of records and specimens.
Framework: A logical structure and guidelines giving a broad overview for classifying and organising complex information, within which detail can be added as required.
Solid Earth systems model (sEsm): A model of the systems of the solid Earth, organised within a framework or metamodel that depicts and clarifies the principal relationships among the findings of geology, providing a multidimensional map to locate and connect ideas, concepts, workflows of investigation, observational records and threads of reasoning.
Granularity: The level or degree of specific detail or resolution at which information is observed or presented.
Ontology: A formal representation describing concepts, entities and relationships in a domain of knowledge, typically providing a more detailed and rigorous machine-readable specification than a thesaurus or taxonomy.