Special edition: the earth sciences in everyday life

Saturday, November 23, 1996

Chris Gilboy (Secretary, EdGEO National Committee)

Basic knowledge of some earth science principles and facts enable us, if we so choose, to appreciate more fully the wonder of life and of our physical surroundings, both natural and artificial. It will provide us with background information which will help us to examine critically the effects we humans have on our biological and physical surroundings. Such examination is crucial if we are to manage our natural resources to the best long-term advantage, not only of ourselves and our successors, but also of all co-existing life forms.

1. Our biological surroundings

Fossil evidence in planet Earth's sedimentary rocks supports the concept of biological diversification over a period of about 3.5 billion years from simple unicellular life forms with soft bodies to today's wide range of unicellular and multicellular fauna, commonly featuring hard body parts. In this process, life, which apparently started in an aquatic environment, radiated its habitat to include both land and air.

Evolutionary trends have not been uniform. At least two mass-extinction events are widely recognised. The first and more calamitous of these in terms of the number of species affected took place at the end of the Permian period (most recently dated at 251+/-3.4 million years ago). It appears to have eliminated about 90 per cent of marine and leaf-bearing, terrestrial plant species along with 70 per cent of vertebrate families. It took place over a period of several million years. Evidence for any single cause as having been of decisive importance is lacking, although interestingly the start of the main stage of the vast outpouring of flood basalts in Siberia has been dated at 250+/-0.3 million years. The second and better known mass extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous Period, some 65 million years ago. The cause is subject to much debate, but may well be related to climatic changes resulting from impact of a large meteorite (most likely located in the vicinity of the Yucatan Peninsula) and/or from particularly widespread volcanism.

The contributions of human activities towards another potential mass extinction are currently of concern to many people.

2. Our physical surroundings

a) Natural

The Earth's surface displays complex, ever-changing geometric and genetic inter-relationships between land, sea and air. These surficial inter-relationships are closely linked to the planet's interior structure and processes which take place there, as well as to extra-terrestrial influences, particularly those of solar and lunar origin. Some understanding of these inter-relationships and of the processes affecting them gives us reasonable answers to all kinds of questions such as why do the Rocky Mountains rise up so dramatically from the plains of Alberta?; why do people living in, say, Regina hardly have to worry about earthquakes whereas those in Vancouver have good reason for such a concern?; what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs?; why are there rich nickel deposits at Sudbury and Voisey's Bay?; why are the Great Lakes where they are? and so on ad infinitum. Landscapes assume a whole different meaning to us when we see that they are the present momentary stage of ongoing action. Features as simple as roadcuts can become exciting as we drive past them - perhaps even stop - to see why the rocks are so red, or to decide if they are sedimentary, igneous or metamorphic in origin, or to determine what is causing that sparkling effect. Geological hazards - earthquakes, volcanoes, landslips, land subsidence - become broadly assessable and we can decide if we are prepared to sacrifice some sense of security for the advantages of living in hazard-prone areas, and perhaps when and how to move out of a hazard-prone area if disaster appears imminent.

Human activity greatly affects our surroundings in many different ways, often with deleterious consequences. For example, poor farming practices may cause devastating increase in rates of wind and/or water erosion. Barriers erected to prevent coastal erosion can have unpredicted results, sometimes leading to increased erosion elsewhere in the vicinity.

With awareness, the effects of geohazards on human communities can be mitigated through careful site planning, for instance, and/or through developing appropriate building standards, and/or having adequate contingency arrangements.

b) Artificial

Our "artificial" surroundings include all structures, buildings and implements manufactured by humans, ranging from our school buildings and all that they contain to the local landfill site, from our homes to our cars, from what we are wearing to what we are eating, from our water supply to our heating systems. Many things we see around us are made up completely of substances that were mined, quarried or pumped from the ground. They are hence "geological" in origin. Almost everything contains at least some of these substances or required use of these substances in their making - rocks, minerals, metals, energy sources and so on. In our very existence as well as in the production and use of all we manufacture, we create considerable waste which requires disposal. This is an increasingly difficult problem for us to solve.

As conscious and conscientious human beings, we have a responsibility to do our best to create what we need to sustain ourselves, at the same time causing as little damage to our natural surroundings as we can. For different professions and different people, this will mean entirely different things. However, decision makers' awareness of possible life-threatening consequences of carefree exploitation will help in the making of wise choices in managing our natural resources. We can mine, quarry and pump. We can dispose of waste products. We can burn fossil fuels, and maybe utilise nuclear energy. We can try to mitigate the effects of natural hazards. However, we must do so with constant care and understanding, with compassion for our natural surroundings, with thought to the future - hence the need for all of us to know some fundamental details of how our planet works.

The EdGEO program is a most effective way of spreading this knowledge widely. Through workshops and other means (such as this issue of Wat on Earth) geoscientists provide teachers with information and classroom aids that will help them try to ensure that Canada's young people develop deep and lasting respect for and connections with planet Earth.

EdGEO workshops for teachers

We run EdGEO, a Canada-wide program which supports local workshops organised by geoscientists and teachers. Its goals are:

  1. to increase public awareness and understanding of earth sciences through teachers and their students
  2. to provide teachers with information and hands-on experience applicable to the classroom and with resource materials required to teach the subject
  3. to provide opportunities for teachers and scientists to meet in informal settings and exchange information
  4. to make teachers and students more aware of the diverse career opportunities available in the earth sciences
  5. to provide teachers with opportunities to liaise with their colleagues.

The EdGEO program has experienced steady growth in the past few years with the number of workshops increasing from three in 1991 to more than ten in 1996. This year, about 360 teachers have taken part in workshops held across the nation in centres both large and small - for example, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Chicoutami, Quebec City, and Wolfville. Activities include classroom sessions on topics such as rock and mineral identification and the history of life on earth, and field sessions at a variety of sites (these have included a graveyard, a boulder pile, the Atlantic coastline, Precambrian outcrops and a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil excavation).

We are able to fund each workshop up to a maximum of about $3000 thanks to grants from societies and fund-raising from the public sector. If you are interested in this aspect of our work, please contact either Fran Haidl, Chair of the EdGEO National Committee, at Saskatchewan Energy and Mines (306-787-6116 or fhaidl@gov.sk.ca) or CGEN. Major supporters of EdGEO are the Geological Association of Canada, the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists and the Canadian Geoscience Council (an umbrella organisation representing geoscientific institutions throughout the country). If you have access to the internet here is a pointer to EdGEO.