Sunday 6 March 2011

Drain the Oceans – fill the minds?

Transmitted on the British Channel 4 and the American National Geographic (and potentially other services across the globe – such as YouTube), ‘Drain the Oceans’ bills itself as a ‘ a virtual scientific expedition to the deep as we explore one of Earth's last great frontiers - the ocean’. Moving stuff. So how well does it do this in terms of communicating geosciences?

Well, the first problem the program makers possibly hit upon was the difficulty of conveying the size of stuff in the oceans, the program very rarely utilised quantifiable figures (excluding in heights) so areas of the seafloor became ‘the size of New Hampshire’ or ‘the size of all the dry land on earth’. Both of which are much more tangible thing to get ones head around (admittedly I didn’t know how big New Hampshire was, but old Hampshire is fairly sizeable). Geographically the locations chosen are likely to be known by potential viewers (I’m going by the assumption that this programme was developed in the USA), with the Bahamas, offshore California and Hawaii used as examples.

General language of the programme too was fairly pleasant to a non geologist, given that most of the oceans have a fairly dull petrological component (basalt) there wasn’t much room for error, expert geologists were used widely and occasionally their language was bit technical, but still fairly comprehendible by a non-geologist.

Volcanoes focussed heavily, of course, big bangy things are guaranteed to interest people;. Unfortunately the programme managed to perform my pet hate; utilising footage of a felsic volcano to describe mafic volcanism. Which, although usually preserved until first year university lectures, seems to be a prominent thing within geological TV – please stop doing it! There are other technical things, such as pressure and gas bubbles at depth below the ocean, but I do not own an anorak so they can be forgiven.

Would volcanic eruptions under 2 miles of water generate clouds of ash and gas at those pressures? Simply the film makers are trying to give the public a manner to attach themselves onto the story of generation of oceanic crust by utilizing familiar imagery (magma = volcanoes = big clouds of smoke)
The programme comfortably utilised plate tectonics to explain the oceanic features (Emperor sea mount chain, mid ocean ridges and subduction zones) and managed to sit on the fence of the mantle plume debate. Indicating that ‘some’ scientists consider Hawaii to have been generated in this manner – rarely a programme takes the time and opportunity to indicate to the public the open floor that science is.

Oceanic Spreading is of course accounted for and interestingly different spreading modes altering the topography is introduced, although not discussed in detail, this gives plenty of opportunity for curious minds to keep exploring into the geosciences!

Oddly the programme completely ignores Oceanic Core Complexes, Apart from being a personal interest of mine they are pretty incredible structures, with a huge fault taking up 30-40km of extension and slopes of kilometres in height. The programme appeared to brush past them; yes, their geology is not perfectly clear but there is plenty of opportunity to amaze people in size, composition (all that lovely mantle peridotite) why did the programme step around it so?

Unlike a lot of geological programmes (Men of Rock, Earth Story, How the Earth was Made) the various localities are not tied into a form of storyline (i.e. the generation and destruction of oceanic lithosphere) instead discussion jumps between different areas. This seems to give the programme little flow, almost as if someone chose the different parts of the film from a hat and felt they needed to stitch it together but is understandable since the programme is presenting different facts, not showing the evolution of a theory or a search for facts on a particular topic.

So, is this programme a good example of communicating geosciences? Yes, certainly, although there are minor holes these are more than made up for by firstly the production and transmission  of such a programme and secondly, facts are displayed in an interesting, visual way making the most of modern(ish) technology while utilising experts in the field to give a complete and attractive package. 

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