Category Archives: End of year summaries, general musings

Anthropocene: what (or who) is it for?

The made-up word chrononymy could be applied to the study of the names of geological divisions and their places on the International Stratigraphic Chart. Until 2008 that was something of a slow-burner, as careers go. It all began with Giovanni Arduino and Johann Gotlob Lehman in the mid- to late 18th century, during the informal historic episode known as the Enlightenment. To them we owe the first statements of stratigraphic principles and the beginning of stratigraphic divisions: rocks divided into the major segments of Primitive, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary (Arduino). Thus stratigraphy seeks to set up a fundamental scale or chart for expressing Earth’s history as revealed by rocks. The first two divisions bit the dust long ago; Tertiary is now an informal synonym for the Cenozoic Era; only Quaternary clings on as the embattled Period at the end of the Cenozoic.  All 11 Systems/Periods of the Phanerozoic, their 37 Series/Epochs and 85 Stages/Ages in the latest version of the International Stratigraphic Chart have been thrashed out since then, much being accomplished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, the world body responsible for sharpening up the definition of this system of ‘chrononymy’, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), seems not to have seen fit to record the history of stratigraphy: a great mystery. Without it geologists would be unable to converse with one another and the world at large.

Yet now an increasing number of scientists are seriously proposing a new entry at the 4th level of division after Eon, Era and Period: a new Epoch that acknowledges the huge global impact of human activity on atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and even lithosphere. They want it to be called the Anthropocene, and for some its eventual acceptance ought to relegate the current Holocene Epoch, in which humans invented agriculture, a form of economic intercourse and exchange known as capital and all the trappings of modern industry, to the 5th division or Stage. Earth-pages has been muttering about the Anthropocene for the past decade, as charted in a number of the links above, so if you want to know which way its author is leaning and how he came to find the proposal an unnecessary irritation, have a look at them. Last week things became sufficiently serious for another comment. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin of the Department of Geography at University College London have summarised the scientific grounds alleged to justify an Anthropocene Epoch and its strict definition in a Nature Perspective (Lewis, S.J. & Maslin, M.A. 2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, v. 519, p. 171-180).-=, which is interestingly discussed in the same Issue by Richard Monastersky.

Lewis and Maslin present two dates that their arguments and accepted stratigraphic protocols suggest as candidates for the start of the Anthropocene: 1610 and 1964 CE, both of which relate to features that are expressed by geological records that should last indefinitely. The first is a decline and eventual recovery in the atmospheric CO2 level recorded in high-resolution Antarctic ice core records between 1570 and 1620 CE that can be ascribed to the decline in the population of the Americas’ native peoples from an estimated 60 to 6 million. This result of the impact of European first colonisation – disease, slaughter, enslavement and famine – reduced agriculture and fire use and saw the regeneration of 5 x 107 hectares of forest, which drew down CO2 globally. It also coincides with the coolest part of the Little Ice Age from 1594-1677 CE. They caution against the start of the Industrial Revolution as an alternative for a ‘Golden Spike’ since it was a diachronous event, beginning in Europe. Instead, they show that the second proposal for a start in 1964 has a good basis in the record of global anthropogenic effects on the Earth marked by the peak fallout of radioactive isotopes generated by atomic weapons tests during the Cold War, principally 14C with a 5730 year half life, together with others more long-lived. The year 1964 is also roughly when growth in all aspects of human activity really took off, which some dub in a slightly Tolkienesque manner the ‘Great Acceleration’. [There is a growing taste for this kind of hyperbole, e.g. the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’ around 2.4 Ga and the ‘Great Dying’ for the end-Permian mass extinction]. Yet they neglect to note that the geochronological origin point for times past has been defined as 1950 CE when nucleogenic 14C contaminated later materials as regards radiocarbon dating, which had just become feasible.   Lewis and Maslin conclude their Perspective as follows:

To a large extent the future of the only place where life is known to exist is being determined by the actions of humans. Yet, the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified. More widespread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of Earth may well have increasing philosophical, social, economic and political implications over the coming decades.

So the Anthropocene adds the future to the stratigraphic column, which seems more than slightly odd. As Richard Monastersky notes, it is in fact a political entity: part of some kind of agenda or manifesto; a sort of environmental agitprop from the ‘geos’. As if there were not dozens of rational reasons to change human impacts to haul society back from catastrophe, which many people outside the scientific community have good reason to see as  hot air on which there is never any concrete action by ‘the great and the good’. Monastersky also notes that the present Anthropocene record in naturally deposited geological materials accounts for less than a millimetre at the top of ocean-floor sediments. How long might the proposed Epoch last? If action to halt anthropogenic environmental change does eventually work, the Anthropocene will be  very short in historic terms let alone those which form the currency of geology. If it doesn’t, there will be nobody around able to document, let alone understand, the epochal events recorded in rocks. At its worst, for some alien, visiting planetary scientists, far in the future, an Anthropocene Epoch will almost certainly be far shorter than the 104 to 105 years represented by the hugely more important Palaeozoic-Mesozoic and Mesozoic-Cenozoic boundary sequences; but with no Wikipedia entry.

Not everybody gets a vote on these kinds of thing, such is the way that science is administered, but all is not lost. The final arbiter is the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), but first the Anthropocene’s status as a new Epoch has to be approved by 60% of the ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, if put to a vote. Then such a ‘supermajority’ would be needed from the chairs of all 16 of the ICS subcommissions that study Earth’s major time divisions. But first, the 37 members of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s ‘Anthropocene’ working group have to decide whether or not to submit a proposal: things may drag on at an appropriately stratigraphic pace. Yet the real point is that the effect of human activity on Earth-system processes has been documented and discussed at length. I’ll give Marx the last word in this ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. A new stratigraphic Epoch doesn’t really seem to measure up to that…

Bibliometrics: the numbers game

In mid-December, British universities, their constituent units and departments, and most academics experienced the same kind of traumatic day familiar to 18-year olds awaiting the examination results on which their advancement to higher education, or not, depended. December 18th, 2014, was REF-Day. Since its predecessor (RAE-Day), 8 years before, a vast – by university standards – effort went into preparing bids on a department-by-department basis to rank them nationally and conflate individual assessments to build a sort of institutional league table for research excellence; hence REF stands for Research Excellence Framework (the RAE was the less meritorious-sounding Research Assessment Exercise). It resembled the Guide Michelin or Automobile Association star system for restaurants and hotels or guest houses. The reason for the 8-year frenzy of activity was that the outcomes aimed to inform the selective allocation of governmental research funding. Unsurprisingly, this kind of competition stemmed from the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, which in 1986 set the scene for ‘performance-related’ funding rather than that based on peer review of each individual bid for major grants, which preceded it.

To itemise each aspect of the way the REF worked could take the majority of Earth Pages readers to an early and ignoble grave. It centred on departmental selection from its full-time researchers of those who were deemed to be ‘research active’ and those who were not, the former having to select four recently published works or ‘outputs’. They had to self-assess each according to its ‘impact’, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Institutions vetted and bundled individual submissions, collated them in the subject areas designated by the REF, then sent them off to ‘REF Central’, where they were to be reviewed by subject-specialist panels that gave out the stars for each submitted item of work: **** = world-leading (30% were deemed to be); *** = internationally excellent (46%); ** = recognized internationally (20%); * = recognized nationally (3%); unclassified = below the standard of national recognition (1% – presumably those obviously lacking star quality were weeded out at institution level). There were more than 190 thousand ‘outputs’, which begs the questions; Were all of them read by at least one specialist panel member? Against what standards were they judged?

On average, each of the roughly 1000 panelists would have had to consider about 190 outputs in greater depth than a casual skim, or more if some were read by several panelists. Outputs were rated ‘in terms of their “originality, significance and rigour”, with reference to international research quality standards’, ‘the “reach and significance” of impacts on the economy, society and/or culture’ and the part they played in their department’s contribution to ‘the vitality and sustainability… of the wider discipline or research base’. On paper – and believe me, REF Central produced plenty of wordy PDFs of guidance – this level of scrutiny makes the adjective ‘daunting’ seem a bit of an understatement. Entering into this spirit of things in the gleeful manner of a Michelin or AA assessor does seem to me a bit hard to grasp. I wonder if the panels in reality just checked each submission for signs of an overly hubristic vision of self-worth.

To some extent, the issue of each output’s citation count or other bibliometric measure must at some stage have come into REF reckoning, and here is what spurred me to defy normal cautions about boredom as a contributor to general organ failure. Physicist Reinhard Werner of Leibniz University in Hanover, Germany believes that deciding on funding and hiring, or firing, needs to steer well-clear of impact factors, citations and other kinds of bibliometrics (Werner, R. 2015 The focus on bibliometrics makes papers less useful. Nature, v. 517, p. 245). Scientists cite other works for many reasons, some worthy and some less so. But it is rare that in doing so we express any opinion on the overall significance of the work that we choose to cite. Yet, conversely, a researcher can choose a field, phrase some findings and submit to such and such journal that will boost their citation frequency and impact. Just by writing about some mundane topic in a publicly accessible way, reviewing the work of lots of other people, or simply writing about this or that topic as observed or measured in an especially highly populous country where science is really booming does much the same thing. Werner makes a telling point, ‘When we believe that we will be judged by silly criteria, we will adapt and behave in silly ways’. Although he does not touch on the absurdities of the REF – why on Earth would he? – Werner comments on distortion of the job market, and peer-reviewed journals. He also pleas for a return to proper scrutiny of scientific merit and, I suspect, for cutting hubris off at the roots.

October 2014 picture

The 1200 m Montserrat mountains in Catalonia, NE Spain (credit: Xavier Varela)

The 1200 m Montserrat mountains in Catalonia, NE Spain (credit: Xavier Varela)

The Montserrat mountains are part of the Pre-Coastal Range of Catalonia in Spain and rise close to the capital Barcelona to form a spectacular backdrop.

Their peculiar pinnacled form results from their comprising tough, well-cemented thick conglomerates, pink in colour and having formed in an early Cenozoic delta. The conglomerates are in very thick, homogeneous beds riven by vertical joints. These two features control the serrated and pinnacled topography, from which is derived the ranges’ Catalan name.

Cenozoic conglomerates of the Monserrat mountains, Catalonia (credit: Wikipedia)

Fieldwork and geological education

In March 2013 EPN carried an item connected with the abandonment of field training at week-long summer schools by the UK’s Open University. After 40 years of geoscientific summer schools connected with courses at Levels-1, -2 and -3 anonymous performance statistics were available for thousands of students who had studied those OU Earth Science courses that offered summer-school experiences in the field, first as compulsory modules (1971-2001) then as an optional element (2002-2011) and finally with no such provision. The March 2013 item compared statistics for the three kinds of provision. It should be noted that the OU once had possibly the world’s largest throughput of degree-level geoscience students for a single higher educational institution.

After 2001, pass rates feel abruptly and significantly; in the Science Foundation Course the rate fell from an annual average of 69 to 54%, and in level-2 Geology from 65 to 55%. This was accompanied by a significant decrease in enrolment in equally and more popular geoscience courses that had never had a summer school element. The second statistical drop was of the order of 30 to 40%. It seemed that residential schools played a vital role in boosting confidence and reinforcing home studies, as well as transferring practical field skills. After further falls in enrolment since summer schools were removed from the curriculum in 2012, the OU is in the process of completely revising its geoscientific courses and attempting to substitute virtual, on-line field and lab ‘experiences’. Time will tell if it ever manages to reach its former level of success and acceptance

So, discovering that The Geological Society of America had surveyed attendees at its Annual Meetings (Petcovic, H.L. et al. 2014. Geoscientists’ perceptions of the value of undergraduate field education. GSA Today, v. 24 (July 2014), p. 4-10) piqued my interest. Almost 90% of those polled agreed that field studies should be a fundamental requirement of undergraduate programmes; very few agreed that becoming an expert geoscientist is possible without field experience. Field courses develop the skills and knowledge specific to ‘doing’ geoscience; teach integration of fundamental concepts and broaden general understanding of them; inculcate cooperation, time management and independent thinking that have broader applications. Fieldwork also has personal and emotional impacts: reinforcing positive attitudes to the subject; creating a geoscientific esprit de corps; helping students recognise their personal strengths and limitations. Then there is the aspect of enhanced employability, highlighted by all categories of respondents.

Set against these somewhat predictable sentiments among geoscientists are the increasing strains posed by cost, time commitment, and liability, as well as the fact that some potential students do not relish outdoor pursuits. Yet overall the broad opinion was that degree programmes should involve at least one field methods course as a requirement, with other non-compulsory opportunities for more advanced field training

Not-so-light, but essential reading

In its 125th year the Geological Society of America is publishing invited reviews of central geoscience topics in its Bulletin. They seem potentially useful for both undergraduate students and researchers as accounts of the ‘state-of-the-art’ and compendia of references. The latest focuses on major controls on past sea-level changes by processes that operate in the solid Earth (Conrad, C.P. 2013. The solid Earth’s influence on sea level. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1027-1052), a retrospective look at how geoscientists have understood large igneous provinces (Bryan, S. E. & Ferrari, L. 2013. Large igneous provinces and silicic large igneous provinces: Progress in our understanding over the last 25 years. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1053-1078) and the perennial topic of how granites form and end up in intrusions (Brown, M. 2013. Granite: From genesis to emplacement Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1079-1113).

Sea level change

Conrad covers sea-level changes on the short- (1 to 100 years), medium- (1 to 100 ka) and long term (1 to 100 Ma). The first two mainly result from local deformation of different kinds associated with glacial loading and unloading. These result in changes in the land surface, the sea surface nearby and on thousand year to 100 ka timescales to ups and downs of the sea-bed. Global sea-level changes due to melting of continental glaciers at the present day amount to about half the estimated 2 to 3 mm of rise each year. But increasingly sensitive measures show it is more complex as the rapid shifts of mass involved in melting ice also result in effects on the solid Earth. At present solid mass is being transferred polewards, but at rates that differ in Northern and Southern hemispheres and which are changing with anthropogenic influences on glacial melting. Viscous movement of the solid Earth is so slow that effects from previous glacial-interglacial episodes continue today. As a result rapid elastic movements are tending to produce relative sea-level falls in polar regions of up to 20 mm per year with rising sea level focusing on areas between 30°N and 30°S. The influence of the slower viscous mass transfer has an opposite sense: sea-level rise at high latitudes. Understanding the short- and medium-term controls is vital in predicting issues arising in the near future from natural and anthropogenic change.

Comparison of two sea level reconstructions du...

Comparison of two sea level reconstructions during the last 500 Ma. (credit: Wikipedia)

 Most geologists are concerned in practice with explanations for major sea-level changes in the distant past, which have a great deal to do with changes in the volumes of the ocean basins. If the global sea-floor rises on average water is displaced onto former land to produce transgressions, and subsidence of the sea floor draws water down from the land. Conrad gives a detailed account of what has been going on since the start of the Cretaceous Period, based on the rate of sea-floor spreading, marine volcanism and sedimentation, changes in the area of the ocean basins and the effects of thermally-induced uplift and subsidence of the continents, showing how each contribution acted cumulatively to give the vast transgressions and regressions that affected the late Phanerozoic. On the even longer timescale of opening and closing of oceans and the building and disintegration of supercontinents the entire mantle becomes involved in controls on sea level and a significant amount of water is chemically exchanged with the mantle.

Large igneous provinces

Cathedral Peak, 3004m above sea level in the K...

The Web of Science database marks the first appearance in print of “large igneous province” in 1993, so here is a topic that is indeed new, although the single-most important attribute of LIPs, ‘flood basalt’ pops up three decades earlier and the term ‘trap’ that describes their stepped topography is more than a century old. Bryan and Ferrari are therefore charting progress in an exciting new field, yet one that no human – or hominin for that matter – has ever witnessed in action. One develops, on average, every 20 Ma and since they are of geologically short duration long periods pass with little sign of one of the worst things that our planet can do to the biosphere. In the last quarter century it has emerged that they blurt out the products of energy and matter transported as rising plumes from the depths of the mantle; they, but not all, have played roles in mass extinctions; unsuspected reserves of precious metals occur in them; they play some role in the formation of sedimentary basins and maturation of petroleum and it seems other planets have them – a recipe for attention in the early 21st century. Whatever, Bryan and Ferrari provide a mine of geological entertainment.



In comparison, granites have always been part of the geologist’s canon, a perennial source of controversy and celebrated by major works every decade, or so it seems, with twenty thousand ‘hits’ on Web of Science since 1900 (WoS only goes back that far). Since the resolution of the plutonist-neptunist wrangling over granite’s origin one topic that has been returned to again and again is how and where did the melting to form granitic magma take place? If indeed granites did form by melting and not as a result of ‘granitisation. Lions of the science worried at these issues up to the mid  20th century: Bowen, Tuttle, Read, Buddington, Barth and many others are largely forgotten actors, except for the credit in such works as that of Michael Brown. Experimental melting under changing pressure and temperature, partial pressures of water, CO2 and oxygen still go on, using different parent rocks. One long-considered possibility has more or less disappeared: fractional crystallisation from more mafic magma might apply to other silicic plutonic rocks helpfully described as ‘granitic’ or called ‘granitoids’, but granite  (sensu stricto) has a specific geochemical and mineralogical niche to which Brown largely adheres. For a while in the last 40 years classification got somewhat out of hand, moving from a mineralogical base to one oriented geochemically: what Brown refers to as the period of ‘Alphabet Granites’ with I-, S- A- and other-type granites. Evidence for the dominance of partial melting of pre-existing continental crust has won-out, and branched into the style, conditions and heat-source of melting.

English: Kit-Mikayi, a rock formation near Kis...

Typical granite tor near Kisumu, Kenya (credit: Wikipedia)

All agree that magmas of granitic composition are extremely sticky. The chemical underpinnings for that and basalt magma’s relatively high fluidity were established by physical chemist Bernhardt Patrick John O’Mara Bockris (1923-2013) but barely referred to, even by Michael Brown. Yet that high viscosity has always posed a problem for the coalescence of small percentages of melt into the vast blobs of low density liquid able to rise from the deep crust to the upper crust. Here are four revealing pages and ten more on how substantial granite bodies are able to ascend, signs that the puzzle is steadily being resolved. Partial melting implies changes in the ability of the continental crust to deform when stressed, and this is one of the topics on which Brown closes his discussion, ending, of course, on a ‘work in progress’ note that has been there since the days of Hutton and Playfair.

The Time Lords of Geology

Epic Time Lord

Time Lord, possibly outside the offices of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (credit: Sorcyress via Flickr)

Because it is the ultimate historical discipline, the essence of geology centres on time, measuring its passage and establishing correlations in time on a global scale so that an interlinked story of Earth evolution can be told. In fact geology is not just about a record of what happened in the four dimensions of place and time; it is a great deal more multidimensional, involving temperature, strain, chemistry, erosion, deposition, sea-level , the course of life and much more besides. Ever more multifaceted and, sadly, divided into subdisciplines and interfaces with other aspects of natural science that few if any individuals can grasp, an almost legally enforceable set of rules is needed to keep the order orderly. Unlike history and more akin to archaeology geological time is of two kinds, its precisely quantitative measure being a relative newcomer.

Since it emerged in the Enlightenment that began in the late 17th century geology has been dominated by a relative sense of timing: Steno’s Law of Superposition, and those relating to deformation, igneous eructations, erosion and deposition, first addressed systematically by James Hutton, being the most familiar. The notion of an absolute time scale into which events separated relative to one another could be fitted with confidence is a real latecomer. Although first attempted between 1650 and 1654 by Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher – he reckoned from the  Old Testament that everything began at dusk on Saturday 22 October 4004 BCE – the only useful and broadly believable approach to absolute time has been based on the decay of radioactive isotopes incorporated into minerals once they had formed within a rock. But that is no panacea for the simple reason that most of them form through igneous or metamorphic processes and only rarely in the course of sedimentation. It also has only become reliable and precise in the last two or three decades.

Tying together global records of all the kinds of process that have made, shaped and changed the Earth has therefore become an increasingly complex blend between local relative dating, burgeoning regional to global means of correlation and the odd point in absolute time. What has arisen is a dual system that, if truth were told, is often used in a cavalier fashion. Equally to the point, the rules have of late become unfit for purpose and are in need of revision, which is a task for the Time Lords, properly known as the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). The trouble is, the rules have themselves evolved somewhat episodically while their subject is appropriately in continual motion and change, if not anarchic. To the outsider things can seem very odd indeed. Most reasonably well-read souls will have heard of the Cambrian and the Jurassic, largely because of the popularity of trilobites that blossomed in the one and dinosaurs that strutted the land in the other. What is less well known is that the two names have different usages as adjectives: one to signify an interval of time called a Period, the other a System of essentially piled-up sedimentary rocks.

There are greater dualisms that group the Period/System divisions: the largest Eon/Eonothem groupings of Archaean, Proterozoic and Phanerozoic; the Era/Erathem signifiers such as Palaeoproterozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Incidentally, the time between the formation of the Earth and the first palpable rocks, from about 4550 to 4000 Ma, has been called the Hadean but has no designated status, possibly because it has no rock record whatsoever. Divisions of Periods/Systems apply only to the time since fossils became abundant 541 Ma ago, and in order of fineness of division are Epoch/Series and Age/Stage. Example of the first can be Lower, Middle and Upper – to spice things up, Middle maybe omitted from some Periods/Systems – or they might be given names derived from type areas, such as the ever popular Llandovery at the base of the Silurian Period/System. Helpfully, the Cambrian contains Terreneuvian, Series 2, Series 3 and Furongian from early to late/bottom to top. The final global division has always floored undergraduates and shows little sign of relief – there are a great many Ages/Stages, in fact a round 100 (I may have miscounted), 98 with names, 2 currently unnamed and 4 in the Cambrian called Stages 2 to 5: confusing, that… has anyone spoken of the Stage 3 Stage or the Stage 5 Age of the Cambrian?

Worryingly, in my hasty overview of the ICS International Stratigraphic Chart above I have reversed the official designation of chronstratigraphic/geochronological nomenclature: is this likely to have me committed to the geoscientific equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, or merely limbo?

I have by no means exhausted officialise. Readers may not be surprised to learn that the Time Lords have bent Heaven and Earth literally to concretise the double entendres of geology. The base of almost every Age/Stage in the Phanerozoic Eonothem/Eon is defined at a suitably agreed point on the ground by, in a few cases, a real golden spike (I may be mistaken on this, as the only one I tried to visit was at the base of a Welsh cliff suitable only to be visited by – in the timeless phrase – ‘a strong party’). More prosaically there are monuments of various ethically appealing designs that go by the sonorous name Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point. I have it on reasonably good authority that ICS delegates have, on occasion, needed to be physically restrained from fist fights over which nation shall host a particular GSSP (the ‘B’ in the acronym is aspirated).

This is the point that all readers will have been waiting for: it has been suggested to ICS that the whole edifice is looked at very closely and perhaps revised (Zalasiewicz, J, et al. 2013. Chronostratigraphy and geochronology: A proposed realignment. GSA Today, v. 23 (March 2013), p. 4-8). For professionals this is an obligatory read, for others optional: there is no excuse as it is downloadable for free – click on the title. While you are about it, you can also download from GSA Today the famous proposal for an entirely new series/epoch called the Anthropocene (see also A sign of the times: the ‘Anthropocene’ in EPN issue of May 2011)

The production of geoscientists: a cautionary tale from the Open University

Despite global recession, worldwide job opportunities for geoscientists are increasing faster than the number of available applicants. In the US the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 21% growth in this sector in 2010-2020 (Perkins, S. 2011. Geosciences: Earth works.  Nature, v. 473, p. 243–244). That figure does not include jobs freed-up by retirement: the demographics of employed geoscientists in the petroleum and mining industries are skewed markedly to the over-40s, peaking at age 50.

The American Geological Institute’s Geoscience Workforce Program has reported that the regions that produce most geoscience graduates, the US, Europe, Russia and China, are not meeting their domestic needs let alone global requirements. The demand stems from the traditional petroleum and mineral industries that are booming, together with the renewable energy sector and growing concern about environmental hazards and impacts attending global warming.

An editorial (Rare Earth scientists) in the December 2012 issue of Nature Geoscience is headlined, ‘Not enough young people enter the geosciences. A passion for the subject should be sparked early on.’ It then comments that the decline in young people studying the geosciences at school stems from Earth science not being taken seriously, under-education of their teachers and budgetary sacrifice of geoscience to preserve the more ‘traditional’ science subjects. The leading article concludes, ‘On an increasingly vulnerable planet, governments need to teach the young people of their country an understanding of the Earth’s basic make-up and dynamics, along with inspiring a fascination for its age and beauty. How else can we expect humanity to survive the Anthropocene?’

Open University

Creative work on the Open University campus (Photo credit: ianonline)

For over 40 years the Open University has been a key UK educator in geoscience. Since 1971 a total of about 170 thousand, mainly British students have studied at home through the OU for a science-based degree. Discovering tectonics, Earth structure, geology and palaeontology through studying the Science Foundation Course must have been a thrilling experience because since 1972, when the OU began to offer a level-2 course in Geology, around 30 thousand of its science ‘beginners’ decided to find out more; an average enrolment of 760 per year. The OU’s Department of Earth Sciences added more level-2 courses so that by 2000, students could also study economic geology (The Earth’s Physical Resources – 18 500 students from 1974 to 2009, averaging 544 per year), planetary science (The Earth: Structure, Composition and Evolution- 14 100 students from 1981 to 2005, averaging 590 per year) and Earth-system science (Earth and Life –7121 students from 1997 to 2006, averaging 712 per year).

After 1981 Open University students could, and many did, aim for a geoscience-oriented degree that also took in three, more advanced, level-3 studies. These were Oceanography (12 121 students from 1989 to 2012, averaging 505 per year), stratigraphy (The Geological Record of Environmental Change – 7968 students from 1976 to 2012, averaging 295 per year) and Earth’s internal processes (Understanding the Continents – 6994 students from 1976 to 2012, averaging 259 per year).

In this way the Open University became one of the world’s largest single providers of geoscience education, if not the largest: in the whole of the United States fewer than 3000 first degrees majoring in geoscience are awarded annually. Yet from its inception the OU’s Department of Earth Sciences had never claimed to be training professional geologists: had it been, its graduates would have significantly affected the world’s employment opportunities in the discipline. In fact that claim could never have been made, for one simple reason: distance learning for part-time students would always struggle to provide the volume of hands-on practical training that is the quintessence of this pre-eminently field- and lab-based discipline. Nevertheless the OU’s range of residential schools where practical activities were intensively provided for went a good way towards filling this gap.

English: Waterfall Geologists, from the Open U...

Open University students at the now defunct Geology summer school, inspecting a fault. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, to those unfamiliar with the realities of the OU milieu it will seem odd that in 2012 the world’s largest provider of distance learning axed all residential courses right across the science spectrum, including those in practical geoscience. But to those directly involved this move was the logical final step in a series of changes since 2001. Before that, for those courses that included a residential component attendance had been compulsory, except in special circumstances. Yet after 2001 university authorities deemed that the residential schools continue only as optional components for degree study and should carry an additional registration fee. Not surprisingly, in the case of the core level-2 Geology course attendance at the re-branded residential school declined to 30% after 2001.

Two other important developments attended this change in the Earth Science degree programme. After 2001 pass rates fell abruptly. For example, in the Science Foundation Course the rate fell from an annual average of 69 to 54%, and in level-2 Geology from 65 to 55%. Because residential schools played a vital role in boosting confidence and reinforcing home studies, equally as important as transferring practical skills, this dramatic fall in performance was only too predictable.

The other post-2001 development was an across-the-board fall in new registrants for Earth Science level-2 courses, especially in those that had previously not been served by residential studies: The Earth: Structure, Composition and Evolution from a pre-2001 average of 680 per year to 470 thereafter; Earth and Life from 866 to 558; The Earth’s Physical Resources from 795 to 456. The majority of those who enrolled for these courses having previously studied the core Geology course such dramatic declines are easily explained. Those who had opted out of the residential course missed its undoubted boost to confidence and enthusiasm, and reinforcement in basic geoscientific principles. More likely to underperform in the Geology course, they would not have felt equipped to deal with other level-2 courses, and ‘voted with their feet’.

Since its launch, The Earth’s Physical Resources course had been acclaimed by geoscience teachers internationally for having made economic geology fascinating rather than a chore. In 2005-7 it had been completely refurbished and rising registrations bucked the downward trend. Yet in 2009, it was axed with little discussion. Declining enrolment for The Earth and Earth and Life prompted management to withdraw both and combine parts of their content in a single course Our Dynamic Planet: Earth and Life. Launched in 2007, by 2012 it attracted a mere 217 applicants. In 2013 it too will be withdrawn from the curriculum.

In late 2010 the OU’s Department of Earth Sciences held a celebration of its 40-year existence; yet only a year later in 2011 the department that had brought plate tectonics, advanced palaeontology, unravelling past climates, physical resources; planetary science and much besides to the widest student audience ever achieved ceased to be. It was merged into a restructured entity called the Department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems. There seems to have been a failure of nerve and leadership that may have important consequences not only for the future of geoscience as a discipline and among the wider public but for the very knowledge necessary for our national and human survival.  The future availability of remaining geoscience courses is uncertain, with all being expected to start for the last time within the next year or two. Perhaps some major transformation to meet increased needs for general public awareness of the way our planet works is being planned: let’s hope so and that any new offerings have as much impact as the earlier courses did before the start of the 21st century. It will be a hard task, as the Open University tripled its fees for students entering the OU system from 2012 onwards.

NOTE: (added 11 February 2013) The Open University has been offered the right of reply to this item.

Publishing: is it worth the effort?

A measure of the esteem in which a peer-reviewed paper is held is supposedly the number of times to which it is referred in other papers. Of course, the older a paper is the more chance that such citations will have built up; but the annual rate of citation is likely to fizzle out over time. Papers that create a frisson of initial excitement and command enduring citation are few and far between: they probably launched a new line of inquiry.

It is instructive to try to nail Alfred Wegener’s influence in tectonics using the Web of Science, which ought to have been pretty high. Superficially, he had none and is remembered through that arm of Thomson Reuters for six papers: four on atmospheric physics – his speciality; one on lunar craters and a sixth on the patterns of cracking seen on rotten wood. These give him a mere 20 citations. Wegener’s posthumous problem was that Die Entstehung der Kontinente first appeared in the fourth issue of Geologische Rundshau in 1912, and seemingly the Web of Science doesn’t have that journal in its archives of a century ago. Later, extended editions appeared in book format which were not peer reviewed (most geoscientists would not touch his ideas with a barge pole until long after his death in 1930), and are therefore outside the academic pale. The key to a plausible mechanism for continental drift – symmetrical magnetic striping above ocean basins – was first described by Fred Vine and Drummond Matthews in an issue of Nature in 1963. In 50 years their work, ranking with discovering the structure of DNA, has accumulated 709 citations; i.e. 38.5 citations per year on average, which is not much for fuelling a revolution.

Photograph of Alfred Wegener, the scientist

Alfred Wegener, the unsung hero of continental drift(credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, citation is not the same as the frequency at which a paper is read. It is no secret that a not inconsiderable number of papers that appear in published reference lists haven’t been read by the authors who cite them. They are there by proxy, and you will probably find them in the bibliography of later papers that those same authors have cited. There is perhaps a certain kudos in such proxy citations, for it may be that the cited paper has achieved the equivalent of canonical status in the field.

Citation frequency is something of a lottery: language of publication; discipline (since 1953 Crick and Watson achieved three times Vine and Matthews’s average citations); date of publication (E. Komatsu of the University of Texas at Austin has already had 1939 citations for his February 2011 paper ‘Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe Observations: Cosmological Interpretations’ published in a supplement to the Astrophysical Journal; nine times the rate of Crick and Watson, but the paper is about the origin of everything)

Interestingly, the December 2012 issue of Geology presents stats on the most cited papers that it has published since 2000 (Cowie, P.A. 2012. Highly cited Geology papers (2000-2010) – What were they and who wrote them? Geology, v.  40, p. 1147-1148). Geology is among the highest ranking journals in the geoscience field, and had an impact factor of 4.8 over the last 5 years. A journal’s impact factor is the number of times all articles published in a 2-year period were cited in all indexed journals in the year following them, divided by the total number of articles published in the two years by the assessed journal. So, papers published in Geology between2007 and 2011 were cited on average 4.8 times in the year following publication. This journal is a useful source of citation statistics as it covers the full range of geoscience and all papers are limited to 4 printed pages, thereby forcing authors to be concise and clear in their writing and illustration. Consequently it is popular, which, incidentally, may explain its high impact factor.

Of the 33 papers cited most between 2000 and 2010, 14 are on topics relating to Tibet and China. There are 3 on oceanography; 3 on paleontology and extinctions; 6 on palaeoclimatology; 10 on tectonics and 10 on magmatism (3 of which were about rare adakites formed by partial melting of subducted oceanic crust). I haven’t read all of the papers, and the stats on topics may tell us very little, but I would bet that papers about geology in high-population emerging countries – China, India and Brazil – are met gleefully by rapidly growing communities of eager young geoscientists. It may even be worth a flutter on adakites as the ‘next big thing’ in petrogenesis. Mind you, it looks like I am not likely to be the best punter for hot papers, as out of the 33 ‘top-3’ papers since 2000, only 6 made it into Earth Pages, and of those only one between 2004-2010.

The digest goes on to show that year-by-year as many as 10 % of papers in Geology are not cited at all, up to 70% are cited between 1 and 5 times per year, while less than 10% get 10 or more citations in a year. Oddly, the author suggests that a dip in citations of Geology papers in recent years may reflect the launch of Nature Geoscience in 2008. Yet glossy as that new addition to the Nature stable might be, it has become something of a desert for papers on geology. Then there is evidence for both ‘vintage’ and ‘just-about-drinkable’ years  in Geology citations: the ‘top ten’ papers in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010 ranged from 10-15 citations for the tenth to 20-25 for the ‘hottest’ paper, while in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2009 the most cited papers stood well above the rest at 32 to 55 citations per year. But that may just reflect the uneven pace at which well-received and provocative work emerges.

So, it begins to seem, from Geology at least, that for most geoscience authors publishing isn’t going to raise much hope as far as jobs or promotions are concerned. Yet if results are not published funding agencies may become fractious about your next grant application, and of course, university science departments puff themselves with annual publication rates (though rarely citation records, which as far as geosciences goes could be a wise move). But it is a matter of academic duty to publish for the record; even if a paper fills just one tiny niche the cumulative effect of publically available knowledge does eventually result in breaks through – one never knows… It could be a salutary lesson should publishers release data on hits for on-line PDFs of papers, as that would give some indication of how many readers individual papers have, but as for a ‘like this’ button or a means of star rating I think we have to venture into the deeper recesses of academic conservatism one small step at a time.

Hominin round-up

Neanderthal ‘high-carb’ diet and self-medication

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man (H. Neumann / Neanderthal Museum)

There is no doubt that the reconstruction of DNA from Neanderthal and Denisovan fossils is the most important forensic breakthrough as regards hominin evolution and relationships, but another approach has is starting to shed light on past lifestyles. Most workers have regarded Neanderthals as being predominantly meat-eaters from the evidence for their big-game hunting feats. In an attempt to get close to their actual diet some researchers have begun to exploit the lack of dental hygiene among fossil hominins: many teeth bear plaque or dental calculus (hardy, K. and 16 others 2012. Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften, v. 99, p. 617-626). Karen Hardy of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and British, Spanish and Australian colleagues used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry and analysis of trapped microfossils in Neanderthal teeth to explore their everyday lives.

The results show signs of wood smoke: a good indicator of cooking and perhaps smoke preservation. Bitumen traces help confirm its use in hafting tools. But the most interesting feature is the consistent identification of cooked carbohydrate residues, enzyme activity on which would have produced the sugars strongly implicated in the formation of substantial plaque deposits. The data suggest that nuts, grass seeds, and possibly even green vegetables were a major part of the Neanderthal diet, A fascinating outcome is the discovery of molecules of the compounds that confer bitterness on a number of herbs with known medicinal properties, such as yarrow and chamomile. That does not prove that Neanderthals were accomplished herbalists, for many primates seek out such plants when feeling ill and even domestic cats will be seen eating grass if they have digestive problems or worms. Yet practical knowledge of herbal remedies cannot be ruled out. This novel, hi-tech approach to life-style analysis will surely blossom for most fossilized hominin dentition bears plenty of plaque. We await with interest the first signs of regular use of tooth-cleaning with woody fibres.

Neanderthals and Aurignacians survived massive volcanic disaster

About 39 thousand years ago the famous volcanic field of the Campi Flegrei west of Naples underwent a massive explosive eruption that created a huge ash plume whose deposition blanketed most of southeastern and eastern Europe with the Campanian Ignimbrite.  The ashfall and the probable disruption of climate and ecosystems over a number of years would have greatly stressed both Neanderthal and modern human (Aurignacian) populations of the area. There are a few sites in the Ukraine and Russia where tools occur below, within and above the ash deposit, but little to suggest the extent to which both populations were affected. However, tangible ash deposits are not the only evidence for volcanic events in human history: fine ash would have permeated everything during the eruption. A host of European geologists and archaeologists have sought microscopic evidence of the Campanian Ignimbrite in sediments within caves that were occupied at this time (Lowe, J. and 41 others 2012. Volcanic ash layers illuminate the resilience of Neanderthals and early modern humans to natural hazards. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi/10.1073/pnas.1204579109): ignimbrite events are signified in cave deposits by ash dominated by minute glassy shards, whose shape is distinctive. The study was able to show that although the effects of the 39 ka eruption must have been devastating for local humans, both groups pulled through. The fact that Neanderthals survived the eruption and attendant prolonged climatic cooling suggests indirectly that their eventual demise was probably not a result of ecological disaster and more likely to have reflected their incapacity to compete successfully with the Aurignacian and later fully-modern human cultures.

Quite a crowd

Olduvai gorge

Olduvai gorge Tanzania (credit: Ingvar via Wikipedia) See also:

Who was the earliest human? Initially this accolade went to Homo habilis, first found by Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania in 2 Ma old sediments. Similar fossils turned up at Koobi Fora on the shores of Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolr) in Kenya also thanks to the Leakey dynasty. Yet as more remains of that antiquity were found differences among them began to emerge, which some ascribed to different species and others to effects of sexual dimorphism among H. habilis. The majority view emerged of two distinct species H. habilis and ergaster but the possibility of a third cohabiting member of the early East African  human family was clung to in the shape of the single-fossil ‘H. rudolfensis’ . There the issue stood for more than two decades. Then, in the manner of London Transport, fossils of three individual humans were unearthed at Koobi Fora by the determined Leakey family (Leakey, M.G. et al. 2012. New fossils from Koobi Fora in northern Kenya confirm taxonomic diversity in early Homo. Nature, v. 488, p. 201-204). They seem to have confirmed three separate cohabiting species of human in Kenya in the period between 1.8 and 2.0 Ma: habils, rudolfensis and erectus/ergaster. Now, this is quite odd as the threefold morphological distinction ought to reflect three lifestyles sufficiently different to support the species over several hundred thousand years. Hopefully, there are teeth and dental plaque…

Time wars flare up again

English: A diagram of the geological time scal...

Time's spiral Image via Wikipedia

Last year Earth Pages News reported a rationalisation of the way in which geological time is signified (Rationalising geological time 7 May 2011). A working group set up by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) defined the year as the base unit, standardizing it to the time in seconds between one solstice and the next at the equator for year 2000 (3.1556925445 × 107 s) thereby linking it to the Système international d’unités or SI base unit of the second, itself defined in terms of behaviour of the caesium atom. It is to be signified by ‘a’ for annus (year in Latin) and preceded by ‘k’, ‘M’ and ‘G’  for thousands, millions and billion years, complying with the SI progression in steps of 103 for units.

The sticking point for some, mainly in the US (e.g. Science magazine and many geoscientists there) is that the ka, Ma, Ga symbols are to apply not only to times before the present but also to spans of geological time. Since the agreed convention is incorporated into SI it has almost the force of law for scientists , so that the Cretaceous Period will be said to have begun at 145.5±4.0 Ma ago, ended at 65.5±0.3 Ma ago and was 80 Ma long, instead of the latter being in m.y., m.yr., mya  or Myr according to what seem to have been personal quirks or those of scientific journals.

Somewhat florid reaction against the rationalisation (Christie-Blick, N. 2012 Geological time conventions and symbols. GSA Today, v. 22 (February 2012 issue), p. 28) seems to have flowed from a deliberation on the IUPAC-IUGS proposal (in Prague, Spring 2010) by a lesser world body: the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s  (ICS) International Subcommission on Stratigraphic Classification (ISSC). The meeting voted 16 to 2 to reject the proposal – a substantial number of voting members abstained – claiming that it violated SI ‘rules’ regarding base- and derived units. The issue, on reaching the ICS meeting, as the same Prague workshop, seems to have been greeted by a 50:50 split. A closed meeting of the ICS Bureau (now we can begin to see the kind of thinking involved here…) on the workshop’s last day unanimously adopted the motion ‘We neither accept nor reject the IUGS-IUPAC Task Group’s recommendation to apply Ma, generally, as the unit of deep time. We accept the argument for Ma as a single unit for time but would recommend flexibility, allowing for the retention of Ma as specific notation for points in time (i.e., dates) and myr as a unit of time denoting duration. We agree with the spirit of this statement’ [my italics]. ‘Neither accepting nor rejecting’ is something familiar from minutes of the Central Committee of the former USSR, being rumoured to have been Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin’s favoured formulation in moments of uncertainty: a little like the old ‘Belfast Question’, ‘Are you for us or against us’ from someone whose politics is not entirely clear.

An argument proffered by Christie-Blick is, ‘No one objects to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 (a date) or to the construction of Stonehenge from 2600–1600 BC (an interval specified by two dates). In the case of the latter, we say that the job took 1000 years, not 1000 BC.’ This forgets something quite practical: geochronologist rarely if ever, ‘neither accept nor reject’ AD, BC BCE, or CE but express time in years before present, with the odd convention that ‘the present’ was 1950, before atmospheric testing of thermonuclear devices. What is wrong with the answer to the question, ‘When did the Cretaceous begin?’ being 145.5 Ma ago, or ‘80 Ma’ in answer to, ‘How long did it last?’ Who would prefer the alternative to the second question –  80 (choose your preferred symbol from the following: m.y., m.yr., mya.  Myr., million years or millions of years)?