“Why are we excited?”
AAPG member Andrew Miall thinks such a question is obvious, but he’ll humor his interviewer just the same.
He then reads a section from Chapter 8 of his new book, written with Nick Eyles, called Canada Rocks, The Geologic Journey.
“During the 1950s, geologists discovered some unusual fossils near the town of Cache Creek in British Columbia. These were fusulinids of the Verbeekinidae family, a type of foraminifera living in the sea. They resembled a grain of wheat about the size of a small raisin, and are of Permian age (290-200 Ma).
“What is strange about these fossils is that they are of a tropical type common in Asia. One possibility is that they formed in the tropics on the western side of an ancient Pacific Ocean, but what is intriguing today is that they are now found more than 500 kilometers inland.
“Moreover, they occurred in limestone rocks comprising a belt running down the middle of British Columbia, a belt very different in character from neighboring rocks on either side.
“Geologists began to discover other far-traveled faunas such as the scallop-like mollusk also far inland. How could these marine rocks and their tropical Asian fossils have ended up so far from the modern coast of western Canada, and so far north of the equator?”
It’s all about the plate-tectonics of terranes.
Miall, a professor in the geology department at the University of Toronto, Canada, has seemingly taught his lesson.
He doesn’t say, but you can almost here him add: You understand now?
Start Spreading the News
The idea for Canada Rocks, Miall says, came from his colleague and co-author Nick Eyles.
“Several years ago Nick wrote Ontario Rocks, in which Nick developed the story of Ontario geology in a style and format, light on technicalities, that would be accessible to an educated but non-geological audience,” he said. “The idea was to appeal to the average, well-educated citizen who is interested in his/her natural surroundings.”
Canada Rocks, a book that pulls together the geologic story of the country’s origins, is designed for a general audience as well, while giving the professional some new perspectives.
“A simple reason for doing the book,” Miall said, “is that there is nothing else like it on the market.”
More to the point, in the recent history of study on Canadian geology, Miall says some important findings have almost gone unnoticed.
“Projects such as COCORP (Consortium for Continental Reflection Profiling) in the United States and Lithoprobe in Canada have fundamentally altered our understanding of the deep architecture of the continent,” he said. “In Canada, for example, a seismic section across the Appalachian orogen in Newfoundland and a synthesis of the seismic data across the southern Cordillera of British Columbia show the allochthonous nature of these orogens and provide essential clues about how the orogens were constructed.
“These data have revolutionized our knowledge of the basic geology,” he added, “and profoundly changed the way in which we teach and research the subject.”
What’s fascinating to Miall is that “none of this has been brought to the attention of a general audience.”
As for the book, Miall said it has taken a number of years for all of this new information to be assimilated, and years more to be interpreted by the professional geoscience community.
Eyles and Miall went to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Prairies and British Columbia – and Miall’s wife, Charlene, a professor in sociology at McMaster University, accompanied them on the trips as “the Scale,” which was her role for many of the book’s pictures.
“When they asked if I would like to accompany (them) on their geologic adventures as ‘scale,’ I readily agreed,” she said. “Anxious to see more of Canada, I soon discovered that my view of the country entailed countless moments gazing in apparent awe at outcrops of rock – some admittedly spectacular, some behind the garbage bins of the local motel.
“In all cases, my question became, ‘What’s my motivation here?’ Although meant in jest, Nick and Andrew would offer explanations that have altered profoundly the way in which I look at my country.”
You might think the discovery of significant geology must have been in remote locales, inaccessible by normal means of transportation.
Miall’s answer is somewhat surprising.
“We kept to the highways, because this is what would limit our readers, too,” he said, understanding that this book will also be used by tourists looking for an adventure across the world’s second largest country.
“In one case,” he said, “we took a boat trip to a remote cove in Newfoundland to visit an exposure of oceanic crust and the mantle, but almost all our first-hand data was collected from the hard shoulder of the highway, or by short hikes into the hills.”
What they collected will not only be valuable to Canada’s scientific community as it stands today, but could help the future generation of Canadian scientists – that is, if there is to be one.
In that respect, he says, both Canada and the United States have similar problems.
“In the Canadian geoscience community, like that in the U.S., there is concern that earth sciences are not widely taught in the school system, so that there is a low level of knowledge or understanding about the science amongst the incoming university-level student population,” he observed. “Nick and I were motivated partly by the thought that this book might help to raise the level of awareness of the subject.”
Miall goes on to say that it isn’t just the world of geologists and the students who may or may not replace them that could benefit from knowledge of the history that, literally, lies beneath their feet. Going in, they knew there was a need for the general public to have a greater understanding.
“Very few academics give this sort of non-specialist writing a high priority,” Miall said. “In my case, since starting to teach a non-technical course for non-science students at the University of Toronto in 1999, I have realized the importance of educating the citizenry about important environmental issues.
“As I tell these students, my course is pretty well the only time during their university education when they will learn some useful information about non-renewable resources (oil, gas, coal, water), about natural hazards and about the natural processes that drive global change,” he said. “We hope the book will do the same sort of thing.”
I’m So Excited
It is that educational need where Miall thinks Canada Rock an do the most good. Specifically, he talks of three areas most misunderstood.
- History: “I tell my students that Toronto’s cottage country (the Muskoka district, a two-hour drive north of the city, on the edge of the Shield) was the site of a mountain range as big as the Himalayas a billion years ago, as a result of the Grenville collision and orogeny.”
- Non-Renewable Resources: “The general public conception of the global supply of oil is based on the business model favored by economists, that the supply will rise as the price goes up. Up to a point, of course, this is true, but non-geologists do not realize that there is actually a finite limit to where oil can be found.”
- Water: “Canadians in general seem to think that Canada is blessed with an unusual abundance of water, and are worried about the ‘thirsty states’ looking northward at the Great Lakes Basin. It has been shown, however, that western Canada is in a phase of increasing drought, and that that the spring runoff from the Rocky Mountains is diminishing and coming earlier in the season (as a result of the receding glaciers).
“Over-use and pollution of groundwater resources is a major issue.”
Miall says there was another reason why the book may be needed – and for the profession and industry, this reason is perhaps the most important.
“The image of geology amongst the general public is that geologists are ‘exploiters of the earth’ because of our involvement with the oil and mining businesses,” he said. “We get blamed for pollution, for greenhouse gases and so on – even though, of course, society needs these resources and would be helpless without them.
“This book may, therefore, serve to help reposition the discipline as one that has a strong environmental component.”
As for the brilliance and simplicity of the title, Canada Rocks – and you have to love the double entendre – Miall is deferential to his co-author.
“Nick’s idea,” he said. “I confess I was looking for something more sober and serious.
“But Nick was right!”