The Ocean on Top of Our Mountain

Tectonics, Hydrocarbons and Geoscience Outreach in the Indian Subcontinent

The flight of the Indian subcontinent from its Gondwanan position nestled between Africa and Antarctica, travelling northward at up to eight inches per year, and then ultimately docking with Asia to form the world’s highest mountain range, has to be among the most dramatic and iconic episodes in Earth’s history. The consequences of these events continue to profoundly affect our climate and oceanic chemistry and, of course, have influenced the distribution of the subcontinent’s hydrocarbon reserves. It is also an inherently visual story and, when understood, opens a whole new and transformative understanding of the world around us.

Professional geologists with years of training are privileged in the details of Earth’s history, but it’s all too easy to forget the magic of those first tectonic realizations. For those of a certain age who grew up when plate tectonics was a young concept, vague memories might linger of the thrill of learning that the world’s odd geography of continents and oceans had an elegant explanation. A driving mechanism that could beautifully reconcile observations of myriad kinds had become suddenly available. When first understood, that realization was totally thrilling!

India: Geoscience Educational Outreach Potential

The Indian subcontinent is home to over a billion humans living in six countries with some of the greatest diversity in faiths and cultures of any part of the planet. It hosts among the most dramatic and beautiful scenery anywhere on Earth, but is also beset with some of the toughest challenges in human and environmental welfare, and in the equitable distribution of resources. Literacy rates have markedly improved over the years since independence from Britain in 1947, but still have ground to make up: the Indian state of West Bengal, for example, currently has literacy rates of 64 percent among females and 77 percent among males. And yet anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit the subcontinent and to venture into rural areas will have experienced the sharp inquisitiveness of its citizens and, most particularly, of its unfailingly good-natured children. These are the subcontinent’s tinderboxes of potential, primed for stimulation and opportunity.

How can we, as geologists, responsibly share our knowledge of the planet’s history and the implications of that understanding for the decisions we make for the future? And how can we transmit this not just to those whose backgrounds offer them opportunity to know the world beyond their immediate experience, but also to those who don’t yet enjoy that privilege?

Image Caption

Sagarmatha (also known as Chungmalungma or Everest) from the north side taken during our fieldwork. The bulk of the mountain including the obvious “yellow band” is Cambrian or Neoproterozoic, but the summit pyramid is middle Ordovician limestone – with trilobites!

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The flight of the Indian subcontinent from its Gondwanan position nestled between Africa and Antarctica, travelling northward at up to eight inches per year, and then ultimately docking with Asia to form the world’s highest mountain range, has to be among the most dramatic and iconic episodes in Earth’s history. The consequences of these events continue to profoundly affect our climate and oceanic chemistry and, of course, have influenced the distribution of the subcontinent’s hydrocarbon reserves. It is also an inherently visual story and, when understood, opens a whole new and transformative understanding of the world around us.

Professional geologists with years of training are privileged in the details of Earth’s history, but it’s all too easy to forget the magic of those first tectonic realizations. For those of a certain age who grew up when plate tectonics was a young concept, vague memories might linger of the thrill of learning that the world’s odd geography of continents and oceans had an elegant explanation. A driving mechanism that could beautifully reconcile observations of myriad kinds had become suddenly available. When first understood, that realization was totally thrilling!

India: Geoscience Educational Outreach Potential

The Indian subcontinent is home to over a billion humans living in six countries with some of the greatest diversity in faiths and cultures of any part of the planet. It hosts among the most dramatic and beautiful scenery anywhere on Earth, but is also beset with some of the toughest challenges in human and environmental welfare, and in the equitable distribution of resources. Literacy rates have markedly improved over the years since independence from Britain in 1947, but still have ground to make up: the Indian state of West Bengal, for example, currently has literacy rates of 64 percent among females and 77 percent among males. And yet anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit the subcontinent and to venture into rural areas will have experienced the sharp inquisitiveness of its citizens and, most particularly, of its unfailingly good-natured children. These are the subcontinent’s tinderboxes of potential, primed for stimulation and opportunity.

How can we, as geologists, responsibly share our knowledge of the planet’s history and the implications of that understanding for the decisions we make for the future? And how can we transmit this not just to those whose backgrounds offer them opportunity to know the world beyond their immediate experience, but also to those who don’t yet enjoy that privilege?

Transmitting the Message Visually

Our response is to recall those early days of plate tectonics and the first TV programs that showed animations of continental collisions and mountains rising. From today’s perspective, those cartoons seem archaic, but at the time they were mesmerizing! This was, literally, earth-shaking stuff – it was monumental! And, more importantly, these were concepts comprehended visually – without requiring the ability to read to a level at which the ideas were effectively transmitted through words alone.

This, then, is the key.

Our previous experience of geoscience educational outreach in the subcontinent was a book about a village girl, Monisha, and her adventures to find a natural explanation for fossilized wood. Petrified wood is a strange looking substance that is common in many parts of the subcontinent, and it naturally inspires curiosity. “Monishar pathorer bon” (“Monisha and the Stone Forest”) was published in association the Geological Society of India in 2012 and provided readers with an explanation for how the transition from wood to stone took place naturally, while remaining respectful of explanations from local traditions. Two Bengali-speaking honors students from the University of California, Riverside, both women, one from a Hindu family and the other from a Muslim family, came with us to do outreach programs in local schools and madrasehs that reached several thousand students. The story was dramatized by a travelling theater company and toured widely in West Bengal, while several hundred copies of the book were distributed free of charge in Bangladesh.

For more information, see the video entitled “’Monisha and the Stone Forest’ Project” at YouTube.com, and our 2015 article in the Journal of Geoscience Education.

The Ubiquitous Cell Phone

Monisha was a noted success, but it also carried a powerful warning: all too many students in rural schools could not read to a level sufficient to grasp the key geological concepts that the story provides. So, as we ramp up the scope of our vision for our next outreach endeavor, we need a medium of communication that can dramatically expand our reach.

That medium is, of course, the cell phone. Visitors to India from abroad might be surprised at just how ubiquitous cell phones have become, even in remote areas. An interesting kind of literacy has arisen – one that’s able to operate the phone effectively, but without necessarily a user who is “literate” in a conventional sense. Furthermore, if one user can operate a phone, tens of others can enjoy shared access to what it offers, provided that it is offered visually.

Here, then, is the key to our next adventure in geoscience education in the subcontinent: an animated series, made available free-of-charge, that explains core concepts of India’s geological history in an attractive manner that requires no reading. We need a story to capture the viewer’s interest through a narrative that they can relate to. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of drama in India’s geological history nor any lack of charismatic fossil characters to help tell the tale.

So, what was the plan? Nigel has worked on the early Paleozoic history of the Himalaya for over 30 years. The Sagarmatha (also known as Mount Everest) has limestones right on the summit containing fossils that demonstrate that the top of the world’s highest mountain was once the floor of an equatorial ocean, and that on that seafloor lived ancient characters including trilobites. So, who better to narrate the story of India’s epic voyage than someone with a pair of beady eyes who has born witness to all the changes the subcontinent has experienced thereafter? Thus, our story begins with Gutishuti (meaning “the one who is rolled up”) uncoiling in the warm palm of a girl from a Himalayan mountain village who has been given the fossil by a climber. Through a conversation between the girl and the fossil, the pair forms a bond that takes them on an adventure into India’s ancient past, as they witness Gondwanan break up and India setting sail northward for its ultimate Himalayan rendezvous. Along the way the friends meet dinosaurs, including maternal sauropods and aggressive therapods, and also see the transition from terrestrial animals with hooves, akin to deer, into fully aquatic whales – a transition that took place in the shadow of the rising Himalaya. These are just some of the many biological gifts from the subcontinent to the rest of the world that arose out of India.

Links to AAPG and the Way Forward

How are hydrocarbons and AAPG part of the story?

After 30 years of work on Himalaya stratigraphy, fossil and tectonics, a series of research questions have led Nigel to look more at the Himalayan foreland basin, and to places in which Cambrian rocks are hydrocarbon hosts. This interest took him to the Association of Petroleum Geologists of India’s GeoIndia conference in 2018 at the invitation of this article’s coauthor, Manish, the then joint secretary of APG, who has a particular interest in nurturing India’s next generation of geoscientists and who organized that year’s national debate amongst the geoscience students. These are the vanguard of carrying geological knowledge forward in the subcontinent, and who form a cadre ready to spread the word of our animated series when it is realized. In line with a trend the world over, APG India is keenly aware of the need to connect our professional activities and interests with lives of all citizens, and thus the increasing importance of educational outreach activities.

How far are we along in this process? Through our friend Sekhar Mukherjee, cartoonist and director of the National Institute of Design in Vijayawada, we have built a talented team of student artists under the guidance of Trisha Banerjee, a Mumbai-based animator. Making the 12-part series will a team of animators in India working for many months. Right now, we’re completing what in India is called a “teaser” (here termed a “promo” or “sizzle reel”) with financial help from the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society and APG India. The teaser will then be used to solicit support for making the whole series.

As geologists, each one of us is privileged that we can see what Richard Fortey has called “the hidden landscape” – the story that the Earth itself is telling us about its past. This history is a magnificent, dramatic and even heroic story that can move and inspire anyone who is open to receive it. Using technology now widely available in villages across the subcontinent we have the potential to share what the Earth says to us with millions, and to spark the fire that burns in every geologist’s eyes.