3D geological models: planning and sustainable management of the subsurface

3D models produced by BGS have directly led to new groundwater abstractions and flood management schemes, and are critical in decision making for regulating radioactive waste disposal and shale gas exploration. BGS leads international best practice in the use of 3D models to inform planning and sustainable management of the urban subsurface. Engineering response teams use BGS mobile mapping technology in the immediate aftermath of major disasters to direct remediation efforts. 3D visualisation software developed by a BGS/commercial venture informs outreach and operational design for high-value mining operations and radioactive waste repositories.


Since 2005, BGS has developed and populated the national geological model (NGM), an integrated set of 3D geological models at various resolutions that is progressively replacing 2D geological maps. To deliver impacts from the NGM, BGS has built on established relationships with government, regulators and industry in the water, environment, energy and minerals sectors to adapt outputs from 3D models to meet their specific needs.

BGS has also developed and customised technologies for geological interpretation and visualisation:

  • BGS·SIGMAmobile software application was developed in 2003–5 and has been deployed on BGS mapping and modelling projects since 2005.
  • GSI3D (developed by Insight GmbH) has been deployed by BGS from 2003 onwards for modelling the geology of the shallow subsurface and adopted in 2007 to build and exploit the NGM.
  • BGS Groundhog desktop GSIS (desktop geoscientific information system) is a graphical software tool for the display of geological and geospatial information such as interpreted (correlated) geological cross-sections, maps and boreholes.
  • In 2014, we released Groundhog as a web-based tool that enables users to interrogate local-scale 3D geology models. Groundhog allows people to explore the geological models by creating their own virtual boreholes or cross-sections.
  • GeoVisionary (3D visualisation), developed with Virtalis Ltd, is used for integrating and visualising multiple, high-resolution surface and subsurface datasets, including not only geology but also subsurface services, infrastructure and excavations.

Various commercialisation and knowledge exchange approaches have secured impact from both the 3D geological models themselves and these associated technologies.

Groundwater abstraction, quality and flooding

Extent of flooding in Oxford in 2007.

BGS 3D geological models are embedded in the groundwater models used by the Environment Agency (EA) to implement catchment abstraction management strategies (CAMS), meet the obligations of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), and manage groundwater flooding risks. The models support the EA in its duties to forecast and quantify the behaviour and responses of aquifer systems and enable enhanced decision-making performance and implementation of CAMS that balance opportunities and risks.

Case studies

  • A BGS 3D model of the Chalk aquifer below London used by the EA and its consultants supports risk-based decision making on new groundwater abstraction licences, leading to additional abstractions valued at £27 million to £40 million.
  • A geological model built using GSI3D underpins a groundwater conceptual model for forecasting groundwater flooding in Oxford, helping the EA and local planning authorities to mitigate risks for property valued in excess of £46 million.
  • Similarly, a GSI3D model underpins a groundwater model for Forres, north-east Scotland, informing measures to alleviate risk from groundwater flooding to properties worth £112 million to £130 million and supporting a case for a £30 million flood alleviation scheme.

Radioactive waste disposal

Radioactive Waste Management Limited (RWN Ltd) has contributed funding to the development of the latest versions of the BGS's UK3D national model of the geology of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. UK3D is a powerful tool clearly linked to existing information that will inform the National Geological Screening (NGS), a national exercise to bring together existing knowledge about UK geology that is relevant to the siting and safety of an underground geological disposal facility. The BGS will carry out the geological aspects of the NGS on behalf of RWM Ltd, using knowledge and expertise gained during the development of UK3D.

The French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (ANDRA) has licenced GeoVisionary since 2010 to support research and design operations at its Bure test facility. ANDRA also exploit the high visual impact and data-streaming capabilities of the software to provide dynamic, 3D visualisations of the design and operation of the test facility, informing public and stakeholder awareness and understanding of France's proposals for long-term storage of radioactive waste, critical for approval to proceed with construction of a geological disposal facility.

Development of urban areas and major infrastructure

Exposed tunnel face during top heading excavation of tunnel PL2RC with the Liebherr 924 excavator. Courtesy of Crossrail, BFK and Dr. Sauer and partners.

Long-standing collaboration between the BGS and Glasgow City Council (GCC) has firmly embedded BGS 3D models into the Council's development planning and control processes. The models provide the essential knowledge on ground conditions that enables the Council, neighbouring local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and potential developers to work together to remediate and redevelop challenging brownfield sites.

GCC are partners with the BGS in a pioneering knowledge exchange network, ASK. ASK maximises use of 3D models by the wider public and private sectors and improves engagement with the environmental research community. A newly appointed BGS/NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow is now assisting GCC in further use of the models, in developing statutory planning guidance for the subsurface of Glasgow, and in building information modelling.

A European Union (EU) COST Action (Sub-Urban), led by BGS with GCC involvement (approved budget of around €1 million), is developing a multinational partnership currently consisting of 29 countries with 3 others pending, to spread established best practices, many from BGS and Glasgow, in 3D geological modelling, subsurface management, planning and custodianship to city authorities throughout Europe and beyond.

BGS 3D models inform ongoing management of ground-related risks for Crossrail, one of the UK's largest infrastructure projects. The models and associated BGS staff expertise guide design of cost-effective ground investigations to resolve challenging and uncertain ground conditions that may pose substantial health and safety risks to tunnelling teams and considerable financial risk to the project.

Exploitation of mineral resources

Aynak Vulkan model

BGS·SIGMAmobile and GeoVisionary are being adapted for use by Vale Mining, the world's largest iron ore mining company, for near-mine exploration data recording, resource modelling and visualisation, informing executive-level decisions on bringing new, high-value ore prospects into development. GeoVisionary is also used to demonstrate Vale's environmental management plans to regulators, facilitating approvals of new mining operations.

The Department for International Development-commissioned BGS 3D model of the Aynak copper deposit 1MB pdf in Afghanistan formed the core reference source on the geology, extent and structure of the prospect. (Also see improving exploitation of natural resources in developing or post-conflict countries.)

Informing response to natural disasters

The Global Earthquake Model (GEM) Inventory Data Collection Tools (IDCT) initiative is adapting BGS·SIGMAmobile for deployment in earthquake zones by rapid response and relief teams such as the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT). The tool enables rapid recording and risk assessment of secondary hazards such as activated landslides, damaged buildings and weakened infrastructure, enabling relief teams to communicate data in real time and manage further risks to affected communities and key infrastructure in the critical first few days following a major natural disaster.


  • Andrew Howard: science director, geology and regional geophysics


Groundwater abstraction, quality and flooding

NERC case study economic evaluation reports: Modelling the UK in 3D and Understanding Groundwater Flooding in the UK

Radioactive waste disposal

Public consultation on National Geological Screening

Virtalis Ltd Case Study, ANDRA

Development of urban areas and major infrastructure

ASK Network

COST TU1206: Sub-Urban — A European network to improve understanding and use of the ground beneath our cities

Aldiss, D T, Black, M G, Entwisle, D C, Page, D P, and Terrington, R L.  2012.  Benefits of a 3D geological model for major tunnelling works: an example from Farringdon, east-central London, UKQuarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, 45 (4).  405–414

Exploitation of mineral resources

Virtalis Ltd Case Study, Vale Mining

BGS Afghanistan Project completion report

Informing response to natural disasters

GEM Inventory Data Collection Tools (IDCT)

ESRI GIS Excellence Awards 2007: winner, Innovation in Central Government

Christchurch earthquake EEFIT mission

Tsunami sediments study and satellite mapping | Japan fieldwork 2011