Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Falling Short of the Park

Recently the South Downs in Southern England became a National Park, granting the region a boost to tourism, altered planning regulations and plenty of new signs (amongst other things). The new national park has a website, designed to both attract visitors and give local people more information about, what is in essence their local authority.

The National Park Authority

Geologically, the South Downs National Park are an area of Chalk, Early Cretaceous clays and sandstones folded by the Wealden anticline during the Cenezoic. The actual ‘downs’ themselves are the remains of the chalk cover that once stretched across the Weald to just south of London. So, what does the website (and therefore we can assume most of the paperwork) from Britain’s newest National Park have to say about the rocks?

Well firstly, where is Geology on the site? Logically it would be accessible under Learning, which it is, but within that subsection it is hidden under the unexciting ‘Themes to Study’ – not exactly going to entice too many people into the regions geology. The site blurts on about the beautiful landscape – but seems to hide the factors behind the landscapes formation.

To really appreciate the South Downs landscape you need to understand how it was formed.’ South Downs National Park Site

Apparently, Most of the rocks that make up the South Downs were formed 120 million years ago – which is odd as Seaford Head, a promontory within the chalk is in fact the stratigraphic boundary between the Santonian and Campanian - 83 million years ago. While stratigraphically the lowest rocks in the new National Park, the Wealden Clay are considered post-Tithonian/pre W Aptian in age or for those without beards, 151-125Ma. In fact only the Lower Greensand and Weald Clay are the only rocks in the park’s boundaries that could be considered to have for. The site’s very own stratigraphic column even places  only the lower units around the 120 Ma mark!

Coast of the National Park - an iconic image
Moving on from the bigger picture, what about the individual units... as something that actually got me into geology in the first place. Flints...

‘Flint was formed from the skeletons of minute animals, such as radiolarians, that floated around in those ancient seas.’

Firstly, very few people know what a ‘radiolarian’ is, I’ve touched upon this within the GSL Q&A page; ‘remains of tiny creatures’ would have been better. Secondly, there is a lot of debate as to the generation of flint –it took me a good few minutes to track down a digestible paper – which indicates that the flint was formed via microbacterial activity. Surely it is more exciting to the reader to just be honest, say you don’t know, or give a couple of theories (wherever they may be hiding)

20 million years – The Alpine Storm’

Maybe the first time orogenic activity has been viewed as a ‘storm’ – a completely useless term – meaning too many other things (weather, political etc) to be of use to anyone! The document goes onto place the Himalayas as being due to the Africa’s convergence with Eurasia. It then gets the order of diagenesis wrong (anticline formed THEN diagenesis – which is absurd – brittle faulting, was in action during the uplift).

What does this site say then, about geoscience communication? Firstly, it is difficult to get to, a casual observer wandering round the site is unlikely stumble upon the page on geology; and when they do information is not correct. The geology of the area is fascinating enough, without the need for incorrect data. 

Language Barrier

Recently I was doing a little bit of fieldwork in Cyprus and having successfully mastered two words of Greek, my interest was ignited in how geological organisations deal with multiple tongues in the regions they serve.

So, the BGS

The diverse site has bountiful English language resources – as expected. But what about the other languages that are present in the UK? In Wales (making up 3 million of the 62 million people living in the UK) , 21% of the population speak Welsh, the only Celtic language that enjoys official status (BBC) yet there is no provision for the welsh language on the BGS site, nor is there provision for Punjab – the second most spoken language in the UK. In terms of interest for tourists or foreign researchers (In French, German, Spanish etc) the BGS give no provision. Although legally and practically English is the primary language of the UK should it not be, that in a multicultural, prosperous country with a world leading geological survey, that a full provision for the languages spoke in a country is provided?

Looking across the pond the USGS does slightly better, although the vast majority of the information is solely in English,  the service does offer a page of information related to earthquake risk in Spanish and a series of Asian  languages – although many of the diagrams are still in English. This is very much a token gesture; 35 million Americans speak Spanish as their primary language (over 1% of the population) with the majority in the more tectonically active southern states (34.72% of the population of California speak Spanish). The fact that the data released is one of earthquake safety clearly indicates that the USGS is utilising its resources for educating people against seismic risks – something that can only be good.

In terms of geoscience outreach, the USGS however is not doing well, for all the 36,000 pages on the USGS website having two in other languages hardly could be reprehensive of population. California is one of the most interesting geological places on earth – shouldn’t everybody be able to enjoy the State’s geology? A whole sector of the community is being ignored by the geosciences.


Bilingual Canada has, on the other hand a high amount of bilingual speakers, with both French and English widely spoken and taught (27 % of the population). It should, and does, follow that the Canadian Geological Survey should present its information in billlingual format, which it does: http://gsc.nrcan.gc.ca/index_e.php and http://gsc.nrcan.gc.ca/index_f.php.  Both sites seem roughly comparable (there is some functional differences, but the information is there) and indicate the importance to Canada for an enviable bilingual society.

So, should a countries geological survey have bi or tri language sites? Within the UK we can have a whole range of government documents in multiple languages – surely it follows that publically funded bodies should be presented in multiple languages too? If road signs are in Welsh why shouldn’t information regarding geosciences be too?  Should it not be, that Spanish speakers can enjoy their states geology in their tongue – just like their fellow citizens. 

Clast Unsupported - tales from a small Sussex town

Recently I emailed my local college, where I was educated to see if they wanted any help with geology revision for their GCSE cohort, a couple of years ago I’d been along to one of their fieldtrips for their coursework and felt like lending a hand again. I received a startling reply, that the school no longer runs GCSE Geology (nor A-Level) due to a poor interest rate amongst pupils.  So, further to my previous post on what primary school children have the opportunity to learn within the geosciences it’s worth looking at what students at my former school will have the opportunity to learn about the goings on inside their planet.

So what do the children get taught?

Geoscience tends to get relegated with geography – so only students who whose GCSE (a GCSE is a qualification gained at 16 that is taken by all UK students before progression into A-Levels, diplomas or the working world) geography (within my year of 270 about 60) will receive tuition into the earth’s processes. Rocks and materials (i.e granite is hard, where cement comes from etc) is covered in chemistry through KS3-GCSE. Looking to the syllabus of GSCE Geography (in this case the exam board AQA) there is a strong focus as to the involvement of plate tectonics and associated landforms (ie Fold Mountains and exciting volcanoes). Excluding a mere footnote there is no interest in Resources, nor petrology or palaeontology. Geography students will have the idea that geosciences is about plate tectonics & volcanoes, how it affects peoples and nothing else.  It is not geology they are studying; it is simply physical geography with people.

The town has been flooded as a partially as a result of upstream geology - this is part of taught geography (GCSE). But the affects are on people, not geological past of stratigraphy

The focus on exciting aspects of geology would however supply interest – 15 year olds are unlikely to be interested in thrust faulting in Scotland but a huge eruption of Yellowstone (which AQA seem to have an obsession with) may encourage a student to read more – and eventually be captivated.

So, say a teenager in a small Sussex town (Uckfield, for those in the area) decides to have a look into the geosciences what will they find? Well Uckfield has two bookshops and one library (which isn’t quite the coolest place to ‘hang out’) I realise that online books are a major market, but for the purposes of clarity and realism (most 15 year olds don’t have a credit card) I will stick with what is locally available.  So starting with the bookshops.

In WH-Smith I could find no books on the geosciences (couple on GCSE Geography though) but could read to my heart’s content on local buses through the war, Chameleons and Dr Who. Mildly outraged I called my local branch and was informed that the store is not large enough to stock science books. Looking to the magazine rack only New Scientist was propping up science – while there were 10 train-enthusiast magazines and stacks of those with the words ‘country’ ‘house’ and ‘life’. Further down the street ‘British Bookshops’ which stocked no geological books (50% of the shop is devoted to cards) but did feature enough science fiction to fill anyone’s need.  I called the store again to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything - but found that my original searching had proved to be correct. So, within a town of 14,000 people there is no geologically orientated book for sale (admittedly there may be some in the numerous charity shops, but no 15 year old goes in there – except under duress)

14,000 people but no geology taught or sold. 

The library on the other hand has a wealth of decent books, suitable for local interest and public reading. I had attempted to get hold of the number of times these books had been lent in order to assess their interest – but the information, in this digital age is not recorded.  The local library holds eight books which I feel (having read most of them!) give a good introduction to geology across the world and UK (including the brilliant 'Earth: An Intimate History by Fortey' and the child / youth friendly Moving Earth by Orne).  However, the library is rarely frequented by teenagers and from memory I always felt a suspicious and frosty reception whenever I went in there.

The local area is well noted for its geology. Charles Dawson, the lawyer who ‘discovered’ the Piltdown Man lived in the town, while the first dinosaur was discovered 10 miles away, the local company Soil Instruments is a world leader in geotechnical design and the Weald, in which the town sits was discussed by Darwin in this keystone publication and exploited for 2000 years for its iron. So what can we surmise? Well, that interest in the geosciences cannot be relied upon to be stimulated in school (much although I thank several members of staff for propping up my interest during my studies there) due to the watery and non-direct curriculum, nor can interest be gained via local bookshops - this could well be the reasoning behind the cessation of geology being taught at the local college.  The lack of publications available does not just affect the young; adults, whom may have missed out in geology at school or (re)ignited an interest to are denied the opportunity to purchase books in their own town which, although they can access titles online easier, many geological inspired books are easy and pleasant to read for the casual reader (Fortey's Earth for example) and will captivate someone in a shop - but not on Amazon.

This does speak for itself within stats, I am, to my knowledge of the 2 years above and one below (roughly 1000 students), the only student to leave my college and pursue a career in the geosciences. The college has generated enough fashion students to fill Milan, Paris and New York many times over but it is letting the science that will allow those fashionisters to make bright dyes and sparkly dresses falter.