From the majestic Atlas Mountains in Morocco to the vast deserts of the US, Christopher Jackson’s work has taken him to some incredible places. It was a remarkable and risky act of courage. He was taken into custody at gunpoint and sentenced to life imprisonment in the line-of-duty. Why would he do this? It’s just for the sake of some old rocks.
Geologists might have a long list of adventure stories to recite and an enviable set of stamps in their passports, but Jackson says that in many people’s eyes, they don’t have a good reputation. After all, they often use their knowledge of Earth’s rocks and Tectonic processes to find rich mineral seams and fossil fuels for drillingAll of this is a horror for the environment.
Jackson wants to change the story. Jackson is the chair in sustainable geosciences at the University of Manchester (UK) Climate change is a major challenge for geologists.. That means helping to create technologies that allow us to live more sustainably and spreading the word about our planet’s climate history. Earth’s rocks were formed at various points in the past, and their chemistry and structure reflect the conditions that prevailed at the time. This geological record can be read to reveal how our planet’s climate has warmed and cooled over the aeons – a story that can help us better understand climate change in our own time. Jackson spoke to New ScientistHis epic travels and how geology can help us live with a lower environmental impact.
Abigail Beall – Your job has taken your to many exciting places. Do you have any favourites?
Christopher Jackson: As a geologist, you go places that few others ever get to visit because you’re interested in rare, weird rocks and those tend to be in far-flung places. That’s always a tingle.
The Atlas Mountains were quite spectacular. I went there to study the way rock salt deforms to generate giant structures within the Earth’s crust. These desert plains are a great place to drive for many hours. Eventually, you will reach mountains at very high altitudes. You travel from desert to forested areas, then to bare rocks. It’s remote and beautiful country with beautiful people living there.
It can be dangerous, I imagine.
My colleagues and myself have been shot in Egypt by guns. We were detained and our passports were confiscated. We were arrested in Argentina several years ago and placed in a cell in a prison overnight. I’ve had racist abuse in the US while doing fieldwork at the Colorado-Utah border. Sometimes people are suspicious of geologists working on their land, even if they have the permissions.
A lot of this work is to understand Earth’s past climate. Why is that important?
The trouble is that in some people’s minds, it’s cold at the North and South Pole and it’s very hot in the deserts, yet people have managed to survive in all those places. What harm can a few degrees more global warming do to the planet?
The information we can gather from layers of rocks built up in Earth’s surface over millennia can answer that question. It tells us how climate change has affected the existence of living organisms on Earth. As selfish beings, that’s what we’re concerned about, right?
“We need to be aware of geological history and how it could replay in our time”
The rock record tells us that abrupt, large swings in climate, such as we’re presently seeing, can lead to the dramatic loss of life. Looking back into the geological record gives us a baseline to understand what we’re living through now and what we might live through in the future.
What can rocks tell us about past climate changes and their impact on our lives?
First, we must understand the climate in the past. This requires proxies, signals found in ancient rocks that can be used to determine how these signals were affected by temperature and rainfall. We often analyse the chemical makeup of very small marine animals. Fossils called foraminifera found in rocks. Sometimes the rocks’ composition and texture record climatically driven events, such as the rise in sea levels. We also use the fossil record for extinctions. We can then compare the timelines and see how they relate to changes in temperature. Earth’s biodiversity.
What kind of things can we learn from these timelines, and what are they?
It is interesting to note how climate change has affected different things on land and in sea. Often, life in the ocean is more affected. It is one thing for the air to get hotter, but it also leads to. Oceans becoming more acidic is another matter entirely for marine animals.. Humans are land-dwelling animals, but we rely upon the oceans for our food and energy. We need to be aware and educated about this geological history and how it might play out in our time.
Why do you feel that geologists don’t have the best reputation?
Geology is a global subject. But a lot of people’s understanding of geology is through a colonial lens of resource piracy: “I know there’s a mine here and I know this mine basically killed a bunch of people” or “there’s an oil field and people make a load of money and they come down in fancy cars, while we don’t have any food”.
In other words, many people’s understanding of geology is a net negative one, and I understand why. We’re going to have to learn from the past. As chair in sustainable geology, my goal is to continue to educate the public, government, and other stakeholders about the critical role geoscience has in addressing the climate crisis.
How can geology help combat climate change
Geology will be fundamental for developing low-carbon economies. Geologists are essential if we want to develop more energy sources that don’t rely on fossil fuels. Hydrothermal and geothermal resources for powerFor instance, Geologists are trained to visualise and model heat transfer and fluid flow in the Earth’s subsurface. This is crucial for understanding which rocks and locations are most productive in terms hydrothermal energy and drilling wells that optimize the use of this resource.
Exploring the rocks in the UK, the stuff under our feet, can be very exciting. We have a great geology for geothermal heat extracting in Cornwall, it turns out.
Geologists are also needed to help. Carbon capture and storage. They are skilled in locating rocks and structures that can trap carbon dioxide securely for hundreds to thousands of years. They are trained to use borehole data and geophysical scans of the Earth’s subsurface to build up an understanding of the distribution of different rock types. This type of analysis is helping us understand that the North Sea is suitable for CO.2 storage.
By the way, geoscience is also really important for helping us achieve many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the internationally agreed targets for improving people’s standard of living around the world. Access to water, energy, and other basic resources are some of the most important goals. These resources can be found only by using geology, which has been and will continue to remain a critical part of our lives.
You were a coauthor of a paper on the racial diversity crisis within geosciences in the UK earlier this year. What did your research reveal?
It was A study of racial/ethnic differences in UK geosciences Higher Education. These results were not surprising, but they were very depressing. We saw there’s a gross under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in undergraduate geosciences, and we see the same pattern for postgraduate geoscience studies as well. The UK has approximately 19% of its 18-25-year-old population who are Black or from an ethnic minority background. But if you look at people of those ages studying science generally, it’s only around 17 per cent, so a slight under-representation. It is significantly lower in geology at just 10%, according to our study.
Do you see any changes in this regard since the beginning of your career.
Although I don’t have statistics, I have noticed an increase in willingness to discuss and resolve the root causes. This gives me hope for tomorrow. However, it is very time-consuming and can take away from what you really want to do: science.
Not many people grow up saying: “You know what? I want to spend a lot of time discussing these really emotionally challenging things, which are upsetting to talk about and might not lead to change.” We’re drawn into that fight to help more junior people. It’s a difficult area to navigate and you won’t be popular. But I don’t particularly care about that.
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