School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Staff Profile

Dr Geoffrey Abbott

Reader in Organic Geochemistry



Dr. Geoff Abbott has more than three decades of research experience applying molecular geochemical, biogeochemical and analytical pyrolysis techniques to address major questions related to the evolution of the Earth’s environment. His research combines detailed laboratory experiments on organic geochemical processes with studies of the carbon cycle in ancient and modern environments (specifically Arctic marine sediments, northern peatlands and soils). This knowledge is then used to illuminate a key period in Earth’s history namely when land plants first appeared on the Earth’s surface. Dr. Abbott has identified molecular components of the earliest plant fossils and is a pioneer of the mechanistic understanding of thermal biomarker transformations.


European Association of Organic Geochemists (EAOG);
Founding member of British Organic Geochemical Society (BOGS).


2002 - continuing Associate Editor for the journal Organic Geochemistry;
2008 - continuing Associate Editor for the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology.

Grant Panel Membership

2014 - 2018 The Royal Society Research Grants Committee.


Research Interests

Dr. Geoff Abbott's major interests are in the areas of organic geochemistry, analytical pyrolysis and biogeochemistry with particular emphasis in these areas:

Carbon cycling and storage in peat, soils, ancient sediments and waters. More recently he has focussed on peatland degradation.

The molecular characterisation of the earliest land plants as well as the development and application of biomarker proxies to reconstruct past environmental and climate change during phytoterrestrialisation (Ordovician-Silurian- Devonian).

The fate of biomarkers in sedimentary rocks, kerogens, asphaltenes and coals.
The structure and function of asphaltenes using ultrasound spectroscopy and biomarker geochemistry.

Esteem indicators (since 1998)

  • Invited speaker at The Brazilian Critical Zone Symposium, University of São Paulo, Brazil, 15-17 April 2019.
  • Speaker at 21st World Congress of Soil Science, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 12-17 August 2018.
  • Plenary speaker at 29th British Organic Geochemical Society Conference, University of Bristol 12-13 July 2018.
  • Invited Keynote Speaker at 56th BSRG Annual Conference 16-19 December 2017.
  • Best Poster Award to PhD student Aleksandra Svalova 28th International Meeting on Organic Geochemistry, Florence, Italy 17-22 September 2017.
  • Best Poster Award in Session on "Management effects on SOM and ecosystem services"  Caio Fernandes Zani, Geoffrey Abbott, Julia Cooper, James Taylor, Elisa  Lopez-Capel at 6th International Symposium on Soil Organic Matter. Rothamsted Research • Harpenden (United Kingdom) 3–7 September 2017.
  • Invited Speaker at Royal Society discussion meeting on "The Rhynie Chert - our earliest terrestrial ecosystem revisited", London, UK, 6-7 March 2017 Click on
  • Invited Speaker at Creative Workshop - McCord Centre for Landscape, Newcastle, UK, 27th May 2016.
  • Speaker at 21st International Symposium on Analytical & Applied Pyrolysis, Nancy, France, 9-12 May 2016.
  • Invited Speaker at Liverpool John Moores University Natural Sciences seminar series seminar series 1st April 2015.
  • Speaker at 20th International Symposium on Analytical & Applied Pyrolysis, Birmingham, UK, 19-23 May 2014.
  • Invited Speaker at Northumbria University Geography and Environmental Sciences seminar series 13th November 2013.
  • Invited Speaker at the John Ray Society seminar series, University of Cambridge March 7th 2013.
  • Plenary Speaker at 19th International Symposium on Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis, Linz, Austria, 21-25 May 2012.
  • Invited Speaker at the University of Amsterdam, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) seminar series, September 17th 2010.
  • Co-convenor of session on "Exploring Biomolecules in Terrestrial Carbon Sinks": Goldschmidt 2010 Conference, Knoxville, USA, June 13 - 18 2010.
  • Member Committee of the 15th International Humic Substances Society Meeting (IHSS15) Tenerife, Spain 27 June - 2 July 2010.
  • Member of Scientific Committee and Session Chair for 18th International Symposium on Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis (PYR08), Canary Islands, Spain 18-23 May 2008.
  • Invited Speaker at Trinity College Dublin, Department of Geology seminar series February 20th 2009.
  • Invited Speaker at 18th International Symposium on Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis (PYR08), Canary Islands, Spain 18-23 May 2008.
  • Speaker at 17th International Symposium on Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis (Pyrolysis 2006) conference in Budapest, Hungary 21-26 May 2006.
  • Session Chair (the Analytical Pyrolysis of Soil and Natural Organic Matter session) at the 17th International Symposium on Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis (Pyrolysis 2006) conference in Budapest, Hungary 21-26 May 2006.
  • Speaker at the Society of Organic Petrology (19th meeting) with the Canadian Society for Coal and Organic Petrology CSCOP-TSOP 2002, Banff, Canada 31 August - 4 September 2002.
  • Speaker at 223rd American Chemical Society, Orlando, USA 7-11 April 2002. Speaker at the 10th Goldschmidt Conference, Oxford, UK 3-8 September 2000.
  • Keynote Speaker at the 2nd Symposium on Biological Chirality (under the auspices of the European Peptide Society)Szeged, Hungary 27-31 August 2000.
  • Convenor of an international meeting on ‘biomass pyrolysis’ held in Norway 26-27 November1998. Reviewer for many international funding agencies including the NSF.
  • External Examiner for Chemistry and associated programmes at the University of Plymouth (2002 - 2006). Coordinator for the Marie Curie RTN in Biogeochemistry at Newcastle University.
  • Invited Speaker at Pyrolysis 2013 seminar CDS Analytical Inc. (based in Oxford Pennsylvania USA) at Analytix, Boldon Business Park, Tyne & Wear UK 22nd October 2013


Current funding includes:

1) The Changing Arctic Ocean Seafloor (ChAOS) - how changing sea ice conditions impact biological communities, biogeochemical processes and ecosystems

Principal Investigator: Dr Geoff Abbott, Newcastle University, Civil Engineering and Geosciences Grant held at: Newcastle University, Civil Engineering and Geosciences

Funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) NERC Reference: NE/P00637X/1
Period of Award: 1 Feb 2017 - 31 Jan 2021
Scheme: Directed (Research Programmes) Value: £402,643

Programme: Changing Arctic Ocean Abstract: ChAOS will quantify the effect of changing sea ice cover on organic matter quality, benthic biodiversity,biological transformations of carbon and nutrient pools, and resulting ecosystem function at the Arctic Ocean seafloor. We will achieve this by determining the amount, source, and bioavailability of organic matter (OM) and associated nutrients exported to the Arctic seafloor; its consumption, transformation, and cycling through the benthic food chain; and its eventual burial or recycling back into the water column. We will study these coupled biological and biogeochemical processes by combining (i) a detailed study of representative Arctic shelf sea habitats that intersect the ice edge, with (ii) broad-scale in situ validation studies and shipboard experiments, (iii) manipulative laboratory experiments that will identify causal relationships and mechanisms,(iv) analyses of highly spatially and temporally resolved data obtained by the Canadian, Norwegian and German Arctic programmes to establish generality, and (v) we will integrate new understanding of controls and effectson biodiversity, biogeochemical pathways and nutrient cycles into modelling approaches to explore how changes in Arctic sea ice alter ecosystems at regional scales. We will focus on parts of the Arctic Ocean where drastic changes in sea ice cover are the main environmental control, e.g., the Barents Sea.of the changing Arctic Ocean.

2) Effects of changing climate on a northern peatland: greenhouse gas sink or source?
Principal Investigator: Dr. Geoff Abbott, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences
Funded by EPSRC and British Geological Survey (BGS) Value: ~ £80,000
Period of award: 1 October 2014 - 1 October 2021

Summary: Northern peatlands currently store approximately one-third of the global terrestrial carbon and therefore play a significant role in the carbon cycle. An important question is which of the following two types of feedback to climate warming is occurring: positive feedback (acceleration of peat decay) or a negative feedback (an increase in carbon sequestration rate). This project will focus on the peatland at Butterburn Flow that is situated within the catchment of the River Irthing which flows through Cumberland and discharges into the Solway Firth.

The aim of this project is to test whether fluctuations in water table will significantly affect the carbon stocks within this peatland. We hypothesise that 'bound' Sphagnum phenolics which inhibit microbial decomposition will be stabilised in peat exposed to a wetter climate, however they will be gradually stripped away in peats exposed to a drier or more variable climate. It is then probable that rewetting will lead to further decomposition and the release of greenhouse gases. This hypothesis will be tested by exploring water table fluctuations, using self-logging pressure transducers measuring the densities and organic carbon contents in the unsaturated, seasonally and permanently saturated layers of the peatexploring the molecular compositions of the peat using tetramethlyammonium hydroxide (TMAH) thermochemolysisTo date, the pressure transducers have been installed to continuously monitor water table fluctuations. Peat cores have also been collected and are awaiting analysis. Sphagnum peat may be sensitive to fluctuations in the water table caused by a changing climate.

3) Unravelling the evolutionary significance of non-lignin cell wall-bound phenolics: a multi-experimental analysis of fern sclerenchyma tissues. 

Funded by Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) Value ~ £5000. Period of award 1 Jan 2019 - 31 Dec 2019. Collaboration with Dr. Olivier Leroux (University of Ghent, Belgium).

Ferns may develop two types of sclerenchyma: a lignified and a non-lignified type. Robust evidence for the absence of lignin was obtained through whole cell-wall-NMR, a powerful technique that has somewhat revolutionized plant cell wall analysis as it is performed on whole material without the need for fractionation or component isolation. Complementary nano-indentation experiments, which revealed that both types of sclerenchyma had similar hardness properties, offered strong proof that lignin is indeed not a prerequisite to form rigid sclerenchyma tissues. Detailed glycan analyses (i.e. immunocytochemistry and polysaccharide analysis through carbohydrate gel electrophoresis) further showed that both types of sclerenchyma had distinct hemicellulose fractions as only lignified sclerenchyma was shown to contain xylans.

4) Investigating the sources and pathways of synthetic fibre and vehicle tyre wear contamination into the marine environment.

Funded by DEFRA and University of Plymouth Enterprise Ltd. Value ~ £30,000. Period of award 12 months. Collaboration with Prof. Richard Thompson (University of Plymouth). 

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic debris (<5 mm) that have accumulated either because of the fragmentation of larger items of plastic in the environment or have entered the environment directly as particles of less than 5 mm. It is widely accepted that microplastic contamination is widespread and increasing. Recent reports indicate that associated negative consequences could become widespread within the next 50 – 100 years unless current rates of contamination are reduced. It has been suggested that microplastics generated during use, for example from the wear of textiles and tyre tread are potentially major sources of microplastic emissions, yet empirical evidence on their pathways to the environment are lacking. The principal aims of this study were therefore to investigate the sources and pathways of synthetic fibre and tyre wear contamination to the marine environment. Some data exist on the sources of synthetic fibres, and it is clear they are widely distributed in the marine environment. However there is hardly any empirical data on the source and distribution of tyre wear particles, and for that reason much of our environmental sampling was focused around roadways.

5) Ultrasonic spectrometry of asphaltene aggregation in water-in-oil emulsionsPrincipal Investigator: Dr. Geoff Abbott, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences
Funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) & British Geological Survey (BGS) Value: ~ £100,000Period of award: 1 October 2014 - 1 March 2018

This project investigates aggregation of asphaltene in water-in-crude oil emulsions using ultrasonic characterisation. This work is part of the NERC CDT in Oil and Gas in collaboration with 19 UK educational institutions as well as industrial partners. Oil spills can occur due to natural and man-made causes and efficient clean up practices are essential for environmental sustainability. Crude oil is a mixture of different fractions of which asphaltene is the heaviest. It is believed that it is the aggregation of asphaltene around water droplets which makes the water-in-oil emulsions very viscous and difficult to remove.
Although asphaltene characterisation has attracted academic and industrial interest for over 30 years many questions remain to be answered with confidence. This includes the concentration at which asphaltene aggregation occurs and the impact of crude oil geochemistry on the aggregation behaviour. The project has the privilege of combining expertise in organic geochemistry, acoustics and mathematical/statistical modelling in order to propose answers to these questions from a new perspective. This multi-disciplinary work also enables the wide-range of analytical and computational tools.

Examples of previous funding include:

1) Geochemical control of organic matter turnover in peatlands: Long-term security or short-term vulnerability of a major carbon store?
Dr Geoff Abbott (with Belyea (Queen Mary) and Cowie (Edinburgh)
NERC NE/E004709/1

2008-2011, £566,834
Peatlands cover vast areas of the world - around 4 million square kilometres - and store about as much carbon as do the living plants in tropical rainforests. For the past 5,000-10,000 years, the plants living on peatlands have been fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as dead plant matter - "peat". In a future warmer, and possibly drier, climate, this stored carbon could be respired back to the atmosphere or leached into rivers. Will increased temperatures and decreased rainfall lead to rapid loss of the peatland carbon store? If so, then the extra carbon released from peatlands could enhance "greenhouse" warming further, leading to a runaway positive feedback on global climate. Or will rapid climate change trigger a shift to peatland types that accumulate peat (and store carbon) at a faster rate than present-day peatlands? If the latter, then peatlands could buffer further climate change.

2) Lignin in the soil-water continuum.

Funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) & Rothamsted Research
Dr. Geoff Abbott (with Dr JAJ Dungait & Dr. R. Bol, Rothamsted Research, North Wyke Research Period of Award: 1 Oct 2009 - 30 Sep 2013

NERC Award Type: DTG - Directed Value: £67,772

3) Carbon turnover in forest and grassland soils – will global warming turn carbon sinks into sources?
Dr. Geoff Abbott (with Dr. M. Perks (Northern Research Station) and Dr. E Vanguelova (Alice Holt Lodge) both from Forest Research (Forestry Commission))
Period of award: 1 Oct 2008 - 30 Sep 2012

NERC Award Type: DTG - Directed Value: ~ £70,000

4) Molecular organic geochemistry and controls on facies architecture – a case study from N. African rocks (Ordovician of northern Gondwana).

Funded by ENI
2nd supervisor Dr. Geoff Abbott. 1st Supervisor Dr. H. Armstrong (Durham University) Funded by ENI (Italy)

5) Molecular characterization of DOC from peat waters. 2nd supervisor
Dr. Geoff Abbott. 1st Supervisor Dr. G. Cowie (Edinburgh University) Funded by NERC

6) Structure and function of asphaltenes. Dr. Geoff Abbott.
Funded by PTDF (Nigeria)
Period of award: 1 May 2010 - 30 Sep 2014

Postgraduate and postdoctoral supervision

Geoff currently supervises I PDRA and 4 PhD students in current and past climate change specifically in Arctic ice retreat, peat biogeochemistry, early land plant evolution, soil biogeochemistry and macromolecular aggregation.

I am always interested in discussing opportunites for postgraduate and postdoctoral study within my group. Funding can be secured from a variety of sources, including an annual competition for research council funding.


Geoff teaches the following modules:

CEG3606: Biogeochemistry - Module Leader 20 credits 

CEG1601: Earth Systems Science - Module Leader 10 credits

GEG 3699 BSc Earth Sciences Project and Dissertation

CEG 8696 MSc Environmental Consultancy Project and Dissertation