Why Earth Sci?

29 January 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in General

This time last year, Professor Tim Wright, of The University of Leeds, posted an open question on twitter, in response to what he saw as a lack of exciting Earth Science opportunities in the UK school curriculum. You can read the responses, which came in from students all the way up to established academics, on its storify feed. I’m a bit late to the game – but his question seems like a good place to start.


The first time I saw lava fall into the sea, during a lucky three months in Hawaii, I remember exactly what I thought: [Expletives deleted]this is the closest to time travel that I’m ever going to get.

There are many fields which take us back. Astronomy and Paleontology have both opened up the past in spectacular fashion. But fossils, like distant galaxies, are reflections. Wonderful, important reflections – but out of reach. The processes of our planet, though, have a timeless quality.

Like most powerful ideas, this quality can be conveyed in a sentence: The present is the key to the past. When we see ripples in sandstone, no one questions what made them: we’re already back on the vanished beach.

This idea also fits (just about) into a word: uniformitarianism. And this one simple concept – that the Earth’s dynamic processes are unchanging across deep time – can take us to some incredible places; and further away from “just rocks” than you’d ever imagine.


Ancient Echoes

For example, historians who (perhaps understandably) skipped last October’s edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, would have missed one of the most thrilling archaeological finds of recent years – in the guise of volcanology.

For three decades, an ancient layer of ash had pointed to a volcanic catastrophe that nobody could trace. Ice cores at both poles told of an extraordinary eruption around the year 1257, but despite having been almost ten times larger than the legendary 1883 blast at Krakatoa, the offending peak had, incredibly, never been found.

The solution, when it came, was cinematic: antique manuscripts aren't usually consulted in these matters. Unearthed in a Dutch library by a French academic – volcanologist Franck Lavigne – and originally written on palm leaves, the Babad Lombok describes the downfall of a kingdom – on Lombok island, in Indonesia. It had happened sometime in the 13th century, after the “collapse” of an unknown mountain.

Today, the island, just East of Java, is dominated by a majestic crater lake. And quite a lot of buried ash. Lavigne and his colleagues – well, had kind of a hunch. They analysed the debris scattered around Lombok, and simultaneously justified their funding: the ash from the island had the same composition as the stuff at the poles. The erstwhile volcano – referred to as "Samalas" on the palm leaves – had stayed anonymous for 750 years by blowing itself to the ends of the Earth.

The fact that we can read a word like "avalanche" (or, rather, its equivalent in Old Javanese) in an age-old text, and know straight away that the author was describing a pyroclastic flow, was key in unraveling one of the biggest mysteries in Earth Science. Thrillingly, though, the echoes of large eruptions can reach even weirder places.


Myth or Magma?

If your civilisation grows up above a volcanic hotspot, you could probably forgive your Gods for catching some of the heat. The native Hawaiians, however, did something much cooler. Among their legends of violent, lusty volcano gods, one tale seems to have surprising roots in reality.

On the surface, it's pure fantasy – we're talking resurrection, fire-breathing, the lot. But with a scientific bent, this bizarre Polynesian legend starts to look wonderfully like a warped form of geology.

In 2008, a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey noticed that parts of the legend – first documented in the 1800s – seemed remarkably similar to major medieval eruptions at Kilauea, Hawaii's most active volcano. When the goddess Pele sets light to a forest, read: giant lava flow (1410-1470). When her lovesick sister tries to dig through her volcano, read: caldera collapse (1470-1500). It’s only natural, I suppose.

I could go on. The relics of large eruptions also seem to survive in the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt (and, via the latter, even in the Old Testament). But as I grudgingly rein myself in, we've reached something resembling the seeds of religion – from geology. If I achieve one thing with this blog, I hope it’s to reinforce what you already know: Earth Science goes deep. Oh, and that it’s not just rocks. It just rocks. Sorry.

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