European Geologist Journal 56

Progress and ambitions of the European Geological Survey Organisations in delivering harmonised subsurface data as the basis for informed energy transition policy


by Julie Hollis1*, Francesco Pizzocolo2, Francesco La Vigna3, Kris Piessens4, and Jørgen Tulstrup5

1 EuroGeoSurveys

2  Geological Survey of the Netherlands, TNO

3  Geological Survey of Italy, ISPRA

4  Geological Survey of Belgium

5  Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland



The Geological Surveys of Europe move steadily toward their ambition to bridge diverse areas where geoscience can support energy transition policy: water, energy, minerals, urban and marine infrastructure, and more. This ambition is built on the European Geological Data Infrastructure (EGDI), which brings together harmonised pan-European subsurface data supported by expert networks. Such efforts tackle the problem that current digital twins of the Earth largely ignore important subsurface resources and processes. We demonstrate how subsurface data supports implementation of Green Deal policy through case studies at national, municipal, and EU level. These cases also allow looking from the past toward the future and underline the importance of dedicated community efforts to build EGDI and a Geological Service for Europe. 

Cite as: Hollis, J., Pizzocolo, F., La Vigna, F., Piessens, K., & Tulstrup, J. (2023). Progress and ambitions of the European Geological Survey Organisations in delivering harmonised subsurface data as the basis for informed energy transition policy. European Geologist, 56.

1. Introduction

Science-informed policy is a goal to which both scientists and politicians aspire. However, achieving this goal requires overcoming multiple challenges from both the science and policy realms. These challenges include availability of: high-quality, up-to-date, harmonised data; expert advisory services; effective translation of scientific information, risk and uncertainty information in non-technical language; timely action; policy-suitable formats and tools; and strong networks and relationships [e.g., 1]. Overcoming these challenges in applying geoscience to policy is the driver for the strategic ambition of the European National Geological Survey Organisations (NGSOs) to establish a sustainable Geological Service for Europe.

Through their collaboration via EuroGeoSurveys the NGSOs have worked already for many years toward establishing the envisaged Geological Service for Europe. Recognising that high-quality harmonised data on the subsurface was essential to supporting implementation of EU policy. EuroGeoSurveys established the European Geological Data Infrastructure (EGDI) in 2016 as the framework for geoscience data, information, and knowledge across the broad spectrum of geoscientific thematic areas relevant to policy: minerals, energy, groundwater, hazards, urban development, coastal zone management, offshore infrastructure development, carbon and hydrogen storage potential, soil chemistry, and the geological maps and models fundamental to understanding all of these areas. EGDI development was ramped up through GeoERA, an ERA-NET co-fund program that delivered a wealth of new, harmonised geoscientific data to understand the European subsurface and inform policy in the areas of geo-energy, groundwater, raw materials, and further development of the information platform (EGDI). This is continued in the current Geological Service for Europe (GSEU) project, a 5-year HE-funded Coordination and Support Action project, with the ultimate goal of establishing a sustainable Geological Service for Europe that will continue to provide these geoscientific services to support policy into the future.

The ambitions of the NGSOs and EuroGeoSurveys are paralleled by policy developments in Europe over the past decade that increasingly require a dedicated geological service. Multiple EU policy spheres requiring data and knowledge of, e.g., soils, groundwater, energy, minerals, hazards, and space have converged and culminated in the European New Green Deal [2–7], with increased coordination between Directorate Generals of the European Commission. Historically limited recognition, amongst policymakers and general publics, of the key role that knowledge of the subsurface plays in effective implementation of these policies seems to be changing, at least partly because of projects like GeoERA and GSEU, and the ongoing representation of EuroGeoSurveys experts on EU expert advisory boards and panels. A highpoint of this process is that in 2023 – for the first time – the geological surveys of Europe are recognised by name in the EU Critical Raw Materials (CRM) Act [3] regarding their role in delivering harmonised data and expert advice to boost knowledge of Europe’s CRM potential.

In this contribution, we present three short case studies involving EuroGeoSurveys and its member NGSOs that highlight the application of geoscience to policymaking at municipal, national, and EU level, looking from the past, through the present, to the future. All three rely on delivery of high-quality, FAIR, harmonised data and expert advice, including through EGDI – a core element of a Geological Service for Europe.

2. An established national geoscientific data repository to support policy: the Dutch key register for the subsurface

In September 2015, the Dutch Parliament endorsed the Basic Subsurface Registration Act (BRO), a legislative framework for establishing a unified, digital, and detailed repository of soil and subsurface data. The Act aimed to dramatically improve management of the Dutch subsurface by centralising the collation of subsurface data and validating, harmonising, and democratising these data, thus preventing avoidable excavation mishaps, elevated costs, hazards for workers and residents, and construction delays due to flawed, inadequate, or inaccessible data. Previously, the responsibility for subsurface data was dispersed among various organisations. TNO is now the centre responsible for the BRO’s implementation and operational management.

The BRO’s database was progressively expanded, starting in 2018 from groundwater and geotechnical drillings, to later include soil samples, geophysical measurements, geological descriptions, and groundwater measurements. During 2024, the final phase will involve expansion to include environmental and contamination data.

In addition to the original goal of preventing costs and mishaps, the added value of national data centralisation and harmonisation afforded by BRO has already become evident through the case of the Zalmhaventoren in Rotterdam, which exemplifies how geoscientific analysis and visualisation can surmount complex subsurface challenges, in this case the impact of the Maas River on groundwater dynamics.

In 2018, the monumental Zalmhaven Tower project commenced – a trio of interconnected residential skyscrapers in Rotterdam’s heart, encompassing a total area of 15,541 m². Throughout the tower’s design and construction, understanding the soil and subsurface emerged as key to energy systems, foundations, pre-existing underground elements, and overall infrastructure. The project brought together commercial entities, local municipalities, and national government bodies, united in collaborative spatial planning, management, and oversight of the urban landscape. The project also integrated diverse data standards for GIS (cityGML, I3S, SGY, XML), BIM (IFC, AutoCad), and other 3D data (such as OBJ) from disparate domains, requiring an intricate fusion of technologies.

A notable aspiration for the Zalmhaventoren was to harness subsurface energy for the heating and cooling of the complex via heat and cold storage in underlying aquifers. This was possible using 3D visualisation via the BRO’s REGISII model. REGIS II is a comprehensive 3D model, through which it is possible to visualise the Dutch subsurface to approximately 500m depth and in 100 x 100m blocks, including hydrogeologic units, allowing recognition of permeable and less permeable strata. These hydrogeologic units have relatively uniform hydraulic properties, allowing nuanced analyses, and are also harmonised with, or integral to, the lithostratigraphic units identified in the Digital Geological Map (DGM). The model delivers permeability data for nearly every unit, allowing effective decision-making regarding groundwater management and providing a basis for further hydrogeological investigations. The model also forms the foundational framework for developing national and regional groundwater models, affording a holistic understanding of hydrogeological dynamics.

Figure 1: Simplified visualisation of the spheres of influence of heat and cold storage in the subsurface beneath the Zalmhaventoren, from

3. A current application of geoscience to policy at municipality level: the Urban Geo-climate Footprint project

According to the United Nations [8], cities will soon be places where more than half the world’s population will live. Thus, improving the resilience of cities is a crucial theme of the agendas of governments and NGOs. The first action to increase resilience of cities is to work on the awareness of their inhabitants and decision makers about all possible hazards and problems present in the city area, but also to engage citizens in this process through dissemination instruments and activities [9]. Here, geology plays an important role.

Cities are in constant interaction with their geological settings, but these characteristics are often hidden and thus “out of sight, out of mind” for citizens and decision makers. The Urban Geo-Climate Footprint (UGF) project [10,11], designed within the framework of the Urban Geology Expert Group of EuroGeoSurveys, is the first example of holistic preliminary analysis of the geological and subsoil-related climate effects on urban areas due to local geological setting, deep processes, superficial processes, exogenous processes, and subsoil anthropic pressure. The aim of the UGF was to develop and share a tool capable of producing a holistic representation of all geological and subsoil-related climate effects on the city. Data taken from available repositories (e.g., the Global Seismic hazard map) were indexed and translated into scores and combined to reach a total value for the analysed city.

The basic assumption of the UGF project is that cities with similar geological-geographical settings have similar challenges to manage, both due to common geological problems and climate change effects on the surface and on the subsurface. The UGF tool produces a useful and user-friendly result consisting of a semi-automatic “city geo-factsheet” (Figure 2) specific to the city considered and defines the so called “UGF score Index”, which is a quantification of its geological complexity. This allows for a direct city-to-city comparison and best practices exchange, but also to raise awareness of inhabitants and decision makers of the geological setting and the link to climate phenomena that persists in urban areas. The tool is currently designed and applied only at European level, but in the near future it will be globally available, allowing for the indexing and clustering of cities worldwide.

Figure 2: Geofactsheet of the city of Darmstadt, produced from the Urban GeoFootprint project.

4. A future application of geoscience to policy at EU level: the Critical Raw Materials Act

Recent EU legislative action to boost resilience in the raw materials supply chain has its origins in the 2008 Raw Materials Initiative. Since then, the EU has only increased legislative developments related to the role of raw materials in the green transition, involving policy that increasingly intersects under the banner of the European Green New Deal [e.g., 2, 3, 7, 12–19] and initiatives such as the Global Gateway and InvestEU. These legislative actions are consequences of the recognition of Europe’s current weak supply chain position, further exposed by the ongoing impacts on the EU energy sector of the war on Ukraine [e.g., 20–22]. This has driven an acceleration of the EU ambitions to boost energy resilience via the REPower EU Plan [17], which specifically identified the key role of critical raw materials (e.g., lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements) required for renewable energy technologies.

Now, for the first time, the European NGSOs are named in EU legislation as part of the CRM Act [3], a key recognition of the role of geoscience in EU-funded raw materials projects (e.g., ProSUM, Minerals4EU, MICA, ORAMA, the EU Latin America Partnership on Raw Materials, SCRREEN, GeoERA, Futuram, EIS, GSEU) and other initiatives. Under Article 35 of the Act, “a subgroup bringing together national geological institutes or surveys” will contribute “to the coordination of national exploration programmes…” This requirement to deliver national data and expertise at EU level, following UNFC standards, and building on existing collaborative efforts of the NGSOs and EuroGeoSurveys through, e.g., GSEU – particularly if supported by a future Geological Service for Europe and EGDI – will enhance the EU’s prospects for boosting resilience in domestic raw materials supply.

5. Conclusions

The complexity of human-Earth interactions that impact the climate crisis – e.g., human impacts on soil quality, groundwater quality and quantity, coastal zone stability, CO2 emissions, and competing subsurface uses for resource extraction and storage – require that climate-relevant policy is firmly grounded in sound geoscientific advice based on up-to-date, high-quality subsurface data and expertise. The urgency to tap into the subsurface’s clean energy potential is only increasing. The three case studies presented here, at municipality (Urban geo-Climate Footprint), national (Dutch BRO), and EU level (Critical Raw Materials Act), demonstrate the evidence for major improvements in sustainable use and management of the European subsurface through the application of subsurface data and knowledge to policy implementation. The three cases also demonstrate key aspects that must be incorporated into future, necessarily more ambitious, initiatives to harness subsurface data and knowledge to achieve the energy transition, namely: a legislative framework for subsurface data management (e.g., BRO), delivery of national geoscience data, harmonized at EU level (e.g., the CRM Act), and building collaboration between the geoscientific community and public administration (e.g., the UGF project). Such actions can drive the delivery of high-quality, harmonised subsurface data, information, and knowledge effectively into the policy-making sphere [e.g., 17]. The link to a foundational FAIR 3D subsurface data infrastructure, such as EGDI is clear.

To some degree, this need is already recognised at EU and national levels. For example, via Digital Europe, the EU has invested in the Green Deal Data Space, to support the European Green Deal. The Green Deal Data Space will be an infrastructure that supports open data sharing from multidisciplinary providers and initiatives, including geoscientific data. Also supported by Digital Europe is the Destination Earth initiative, which aims to build highly accurate digital twins, or models, to monitor and simulate natural phenomena, hazards, and related human activities. While focusing initially on weather and climate change, future components of the digital twins (to be developed post-2024) will incorporate geophysical data.

6. Future pathways

The ultimate ambition of a full digital replica of the Earth, as envisaged by 2030, must necessarily incorporate geoscientific data types not yet planned for. This is indicative of the still large gap that geoscience must cross to effectively inform policy. For example, the current EU Urban Agenda focusses on themes including climate adaptation, energy transition, and sustainable use of land and nature-based solutions but there is no policy recognition of the key role that sustainable management of the urban subsurface will play in all of these areas, e.g., management of urban groundwater, subsidence, geothermal energy, or urban underground storage space (for infrastructure, fuel, heat and cold).

The need for sound geoscience to inform policy is, however, widely recognised within the geoscientific community. The success of the Dutch key register and the EU vision of digital transformation, allow for a vision of a future EU multi-scale 3/4D key register/data infrastructure, a further developed EGDI. Such a 3/4D data infrastructure could support modelling of different datasets that represent features and processes that interact in the Earth’s subsurface (e.g., groundwater, heat, faults, pore space, etc). This would necessarily require application of machine learning technologies to handle the extremely complex 3D and 4D modelling required for predictive modelling of multiple subsurface datasets and data types, and could greatly enhance our ability to sustainably use and manage the European subsurface. The heterogeneous distribution of non-harmonised data across Europe needs to be tackled, but local and in some cases regional models are already within reach and have proven value. An absolute requirement is – as in the Dutch case – allowing reuse of subsurface data. This ongoing journey toward the delivery of increasingly advanced, harmonised 3D and 4D data through open access portals perhaps best captures the direction of travel for collaborative European geoscience for society.

Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 56 – Geoscience in policy making: Past experience, current practice and future opportunities

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