The Earth system: Geology lessons for our future

Saturday, May 24, 1997

Alan V. Morgan

Ontario Science Centre, North York, Metropolitan Toronto.

Just two weeks after our small meeting at the Royal York (see the "Earth Awareness Day" mentioned elsewhere) a major Earth System Science Symposium was held at the Ontario Science Centre from the 5-7th December, 1996. The meeting was intended to explain in simplistic terms two critical questions facing the inhabitants of Planet Earth. What lessons are to be concluded from the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth System; and, what are the impacts on the Earth System of humans, by 2020 AD, twice the number of the 5+ billion population?

The Earth Systems Symposium (which honored J. Tuzo Wilson, first Director of the Ontario Science Centre, and a driving force behind aspects of the plate tectonic theory, and Harry Thode, a renowned isotope geochemist, and former President of McMaster University) had an outstanding organising committee. The support for the meeting came from The Geological Association of Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada, the International Union of Geological Sciences, the Ontario Science Centre, The Royal Society of Canada (Global Change Program), the Royal Society of London, UNESCO and the University of Toronto.

The conference had a total of 230 registered participants from 11 countries, some from as far away as Australia, Hong-Kong, India and Czech Republic. Approximately 75% of the audience were Canadians, with the vast majority from Ontario, although some came from British Columbia, others from the Maritimes, and still more from points in between. A further 10% were from the United States. A minimum of 52% of the registered audience had doctoral degrees. A number of government representatives were present including one Assistant Deputy Minister, and several science writers were also registered.

A stellar cast of individuals, mentioned in more detail below, were mustered to explain these concepts, and most succeeded admirably; unfortunately, as you can see from the registrants above, to an audience of converts! I am not sure just what happened in the planning for this meeting, but for one of the best casts assembled for a geoscience meeting, the proposed "citizen scientists" and the media proved to be singularly disinterested. This lack of participation is really tragic. For a profession which has a particularly important role - more than that - a crucial role to play in what happens on this world of ours over the next several centuries the lack of awareness of the part that the geosciences will play is particularly disturbing. More of this later, but just what had been missed by the news media and good citizens of southern Ontario?

The programme was arranged with seven blocks. Each block had a chair and three invited speakers and time for a few questions. Two public lectures were also given in the evenings.

Block I: "The Planet: Origin and Nature" was introduced by the Chair, Derek York (University of Toronto), who took us through the history of the planet with specific reference to the problems of its age. The speakers were R. Keith O'Nions (University of Oxford) on "The Early Development of the Earth", Richard Grieve (Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa) on "Extraterrestrial Impacts" and Kurt Lambeck of the Australian National University on the "Changing Shape of the Earth: Ice Sheets, Sea level and the Shape of the Earth."

Block II - "Planet Dynamics: Controls and Responses" was chaired by Paul F. Hoffman (Harvard University, MA). Paul provided a quick overview of planetary comparisons between Venus, Earth and Mars. Paul was followed by Richard G. Gordon (Rice University, Texas) on "Plate Tectonics from Satellites" The third presentation was on "Mountains, Landscapes and Climate - Interactions between Tectonics and Surface Processes" by Chris Beaumont of Dalhousie University, and then Hans-Ulrich Schmincke (Geomar, Kiel, Germany) talked about "Volcano-magma systems: Climate, Hazards and Prediction."

In the evening, there was a public lecture on the origin and nature of the solar system by Claude Jean Allegre of the University of Paris. Professor Allegre is a recipient of the Crafoord prize awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; the equivalent of a Nobel prize in the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy, geosciences and ecology. His presentation was on the "Origin, and Nature of the Solar System."

The Friday morning session started at 8:30 to an enthusiastic bunch of die-hard scientists, although it was obvious that the student numbers had dwindled somewhat.

Block III was chaired by Chris Barnes (University of Victoria), and commenced with a ten minute introduction to the session entitled "Life: Origin, Diversity and Extinction." The remaining speakers were Andrew Knoll (Harvard University) "Earth as a Biological Planet: Infancy and Maturation"; Douglas H. Erwin of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington on "Extensions and Renewals." The fourth speaker was Christopher J. Humphries of the Natural History Museum in London. Humphries lectured on "Biodiversity: Form, Space and Time."

Block IV began with an introduction by Jorn Thiede of Geomarine Kiel. The title of this session was on "Ancient Oceans and Atmospheres: Greenhouses and Icehouses." Thiede was followed by Jan Veizer of the Ottawa-Carleton Geoscience Centre and the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany on "Ancient Oceans, Atmosphere and Climate", by Larry Mayer of the University of New Brunswick, on "Unravelling the History of Oceanic Variability," and the final speaker was Richard Fairbanks (Lamont-Doherty, Columbia University, NY) who talked on the "Oceanic Record in Hominid Times."

Block V "Global Change and Natural Variability" was chaired by Lawrence Mysak (McGill University) who pointed out that the extremely equable climates of the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary gradually deteriorated in late Tertiary and Quaternary time. Mysak then introduced Ralph Keeling (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA), who gave a paper on "Global Change and the Carbon Cycle from an Atmospheric Perspective." Keeling was followed by Hans Oeschger (University of Bern, Switzerland) on the "Polar Ice Record" and then by Lonnie G. Thompson of Ohio State University at Columbus, on the "Record of Mountain Glaciers."

Thompson's talk concluded the second day's sessions, but the second evening Public Lecture was given by William (Bill) Fyfe (University of Western Ontario) on "Environmental Science and Policy: Issues, Questions and Answers." The talk was attended by about 60 participants. Bill's talk explained that there will be between 10 and 20 billion humans on the planet by 2050 and this incredible population growth will require new technologies for energy, food production, transport, material resources, water, and air quality as well as the management of wastes. These points were not lost on the audience, but it was extremely unfortunate that more members of the public, and particularly our political task masters, were not present to hear these words of wisdom coming from such an erudite scientist.

Saturday morning's lectures started again at 8:30 to a continuing group of devotees. A casual glance around the audience showed that high school participants had dropped to a few, and as far as I am aware, only one news media person was present in the auditorium.

Block VI was chaired by Antonio C. Lasaga of Yale University who introduced the mornings topics on "Our Predictive Capacity and Earth System Models." The second speaker of the session was Karl Turekian of Yale University, CT, on "Models and Experimental Records." The third talk was by Susan W. Kieffer who addressed the subject of "Volcanoes, Floods and Landscapes: Our Predictive Capacity" and she was followed by James C.G. Walker, of the University of Michigan, entitled "Can We Predict Climate?"

Block VII on "Human Impacts on the Environment: Framing the Question" was chaired by Brian J. Skinner of Yale University. The speakers in this session included Carroll Ann Hodges of Woodside, CA, who talked on "Nonrenewable Resources: Club of Rome Revisited"; Gordon M. Wolman of The Johns Hopkins University, MD on "Water", and M.G.K. Menon of New Delhi, India on "Energy and Waste Disposal."

Menon's talk completed the formal presentations, but a large "public forum" was held on the Saturday afternoon. The forum was entitled "Debates on Public Issues" and was chaired by J. Fraser Mustard with William Fyfe and Bernard Beaudoin as co-chairs. The question posed was "Given what we know about the planet and how it works, what do you think the effects of mankind's changes will be?" A large panel of experts addressed topics such as Time (Bernard Beaudoin); Energy and the Environment (Gordon McBain, A DM, Environment Canada) and M.K. Menon; Waste Management (Bill Fyfe); Groundwater (John Cherry) Predictability (Keith O'Nions); World food (Wolfgang Eder) Earth System Education (Robert Haynes and Godfrey Nowlan); Mineral Resources (Charles Ferguson and Hugh Morris) and "Reflections" (Christine Williams, a student from Pickering High School) and Ursula Franklin.

The conference finally closed with a delightful dinner at the Ontario Association of Architects building, chaired by John M. Hayes (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) to honour H.G. Thode. I am glad that Harry was able to make the symposium; he passed away just fourteen weeks after the meeting on March 22, 1997.

A three day meeting of this sort was a major undertaking for speakers and participants alike. Those who stuck through the full three days could not have failed to gain interesting insights into many aspects of the way in which our planet works, and what w e, as a species are doing it. They might also have learned how Earth scientists go about trying to understand it. However, the underlying question is "Was it worthwhile?" From a scientist's perspective and as a first year teacher in Earth Sciences my answer is yes, however, I regretfully conclude that it failed. I was struck by the fact that had the panel of experts consisted of basketball players, ice hockey and football stars, the news media would have been there in force and it would have been standing room only for the general public. Perhaps I am too cynical, but it appears that we (Earth scientists) have to do a lot to improve interest in our subject area. We know it is important - witness the gradually unfolding catastrophe along the Red River Valley at the time of writing - so why is it that we fail to communicate our knowledge and interest to the public at large? An audience of 200, which might represent the absolute maximum number of public participants at the Science Centre, is simply not good enough!

I am aware that all presentations were videotaped, and that the tapes can be purchased, and that a book is being prepared summarising the papers presented at this meeting. It will be the only chance to transmit the wealth of knowledge presented at "The Earth System" Conference to the public at large. The Ontario Science Centre and its staff, and especially Vic Tyrer, did an outstanding job in hosting this meeting. Our thanks should also go to the organising committee for arranging one of the most interesting "show and tells" on planet Earth that has been arranged for a long time and to the donors who helped to defray costs. Let's hope that the next one is attended by a far larger crowd of teachers!

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