Why is ‘Geodiversity’ important to me?

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‘Geodiversity’ is a fairly new, umbrella term that encompasses the immense variety of rocks, fossils, minerals, soils, landforms and geomorphology, together with the processes which govern all of these, on Earth. Ok. Put it that why and it actually sounds rather wide-reaching and complicated! Put simply, geodiversity is about the landscape around us, what forms that landscape and how it is formed, together with why we should pay attention to preserving it. It is about valuing the amazing variety of landscapes around us.

The much wider-used ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of life within any given ecosystem – is almost always directly underpinned by, and indeed affected by, the local geodiversity. This includes ourselves, and the ways in which we as human beings are affected by, interact with, and indeed at times interfere with, the planet’s geology, landscapes and landforms.

The term ‘geodiversity’ is not just another piece of academic jargon, aimed at those working in academic institutions; I would suggest it has been coined for quite a specific purpose. It is about (re)connecting people with the land; asking politicians, teachers, scientists, those working in industry, local people – everyone – to take notice of their local area and help look after it.

Geodiversity, to my mind at least, is a modern term for a fairly ancient set of concepts. The idea of being aware of the land, both physically and ‘mentally’ or emotionally, and the idea that we bear responsibility for looking after the places in which we live and work; both of these older cultural ideas seem pertinent in a discussion of geodiversity. This is perhaps particularly true in localized geodiversity ‘hotspots’, and sites of special scientific interest, of which Scotland and the rest of the UK is lucky enough to have a great many. But it is also equally valuable in those places we take for granted, in our local neighbourhoods, as well as in the areas where we have taken natural resources from the land over recent decades.

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Personally, I am intrigued by the fact that everywhere I walk in Scotland, indeed everywhere I look, there are remnants of every stage of Scotland’s journey across the globe. Scotland has an incredible and unique geodiversity – our small country’s geological history takes us from our origins near the South Pole to where we are today, and the journey is documented in our geological record. It is (at times literally) a melting pot of geological information – the diary of our country’s travels, with all its twists and turns, jolts and violent interventions. Few other countries in the world have such an astonishing variety of rocks, fossils, minerals and landforms of all ages. Our oldest rocks are 3 billion years old, through them we look directly into ‘deep time’; ancient rainforests gave us our rich oil and coal deposits; our beautiful mountain ranges tell the story of continents colliding; and our landscape is peppered with the remains of extinct volcanoes. Our entire country’s story is written in our geodiversity.

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In tribute to all this, there are a number of people in Scotland who are working hard to advance knowledge of geodiversity in the hope of promoting, and ultimately protecting, the landscape and all the life it sustains. The work of the Scottish Geodiversity Forum and all its partners is testament to this drive for recognising the importance of geodiversity (for more details see www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org), and England recently followed suit with their own Geodiversity Charter (for details, see http://www.englishgeodiversityforum.org).

It is undoubtedly true that I write this from a standpoint of great privilege, particularly given the events in recent months elsewhere in the world. I am lucky to live in a geologically ‘placid’ part of the Earth. Scotland is now free from massive earthquakes, from the threat of volcanic eruptions, and from the terrors that geological forces of planet Earth can throw at us. Perhaps it would come as a surprise to some to learn that our own landscapes were formed by these self-same forces, albeit millions of years ago. Large scale events around the world that make the news can perhaps also help us to ‘sit up and take notice’ of our own surroundings – and to recognise the immense value there is in understanding how our own landscapes came about, and learn how to preserve them.

Learning to be aware of geodiversity, and considerate of how the landscape around you is used, is my main point here. If you can learn a little about your local spot and its history, and help care for it, in some small way, then this is what I think geodiversity is ultimately about. Geodiversity covers the immensity of geological time – an unfathomable scale. It is about the past, the present, but perhaps most importantly, looking ahead to the future. And the best way each of us can do that is by starting small, on very much a local scale, and look out for chances to preserve and protect the landscapes and landforms right on our doorsteps.

All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015

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On the trail of a nation’s favourite fossil

Recently, though albeit a little quietly, the public voted for their top five favourite fossils originating from Scotland. The poll was organised by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum to promote Scotland’s fossil record as being one of the most diverse and interesting in the world, as well as encourage public engagement with the range of fossils on their doorstep. Many people were intrigued to learn of Scotland’s fossil record, and were amazed that Scotland laid claim to so many species spanning many millions of years.

From giant sea scorpions to trilobites, from ammonites to fossilized dinosaur footprints, from some of the earliest life on earth in the form of stromatolites and early land plants, we are lucky enough to have them all. So which fossil came out on top as the public’s favourite? With dinosaurs in the running you may be surprised to hear that it was actually the Devonian fish that won the poll.

As the Scottish Geodiversity Forum’s resident science writer, I was in charge of compiling and writing the publicity on the poll, including the write-ups on each of the candidates. This led me on my own ‘voyage of discovery’ into quite beautiful, ancient landscapes and seas. I ended up with so many favourites that I couldn’t decide which I really wanted to win. When the results were announced at the end of March, I was delighted – how wonderful that the public choose something a little unexpected.

So why did the fish win? My initial reaction is two-fold. Firstly, they are beautiful. Many of the fish fossils are immaculately preserved – they could almost leap off the rocks as though they were still alive. The intricate detailing in their fish scales, their tails and heads intact in many specimens. They are fossils that are easy to understand and anyone and everyone can ‘see’ them, without having to imagine the rest of a creature from a vertebrae or leg bone (no offence to the dinosaurs!).

There is also the historical link with one of Scotland’s highly respected geologists, Hugh Miller. An avid fossil collector, Miller’s own personal collection of over 6000 fossils – including many Devonian fish – now makes up the main body of the fossil collection at the National Museum of Scotland. He meticulously pieced together hundreds of fragments of Devonian fish specimens, genuinely fascinated by interpreting how they looked and how they lived. His discoveries still provide science with new insights into these creatures today.

But perhaps there is also something else in the choice of the Devonian fish: the appeal of the unknown, the mysterious depths of the oceans, which enticed people to claim the fish as their favourite. There is, for me at least, a mythical quality about the ‘age of the fishes’. Back in the Devonian period, 417 to 354 million years ago, Scotland lay south of the equator, enjoying a seasonal climate and warm seas. In these seas, fish had evolved rapidly, and a dazzling array of different fish of all shapes and sizes flourished. These fish then swam into the rivers and lakes of the land which would become Scotland, a landscape patchworked with Old Red Sandstone.

Alternating seasons led to these lakes and rivers drying up periodically, at times causing mass fatalities in the fish populations. Scotland’s Devonian fish fossils have therefore been found, in certain places, in large groups – preserved during their vain attempts to stay alive in the little pools in the middle of dried-up lakes. Some of the sandstones in which the fish are preserved have since been used as building and pavement stones – so the Devonian fish also decorate the streets of our towns and cities, a quiet reminder of ancient life and Scotland’s geological history.

Are we also curious as to the metamorphoses of the rest of life on Earth from these creatures? The fact that early tetrapods – the link between amphibians and reptiles – came in close behind the fish in the poll suggests perhaps so. Whatever the reasons, I am thrilled the public voted for the Devonian fish – and I hope the poll helps all those involved with studying and preserving our fossil record to promote their cause and raise public awareness of the importance and diversity of Scotland’s fossils in future.

Sources and further information:

www.scottishgeology.com

www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org

www.thefriendsofhughmiller.org.uk

www.hughmiller.org

All text copyright L. Reid 2015

Into the blue

I spent the day walking the blurred boundary lines between land and sea, sea and sky. An intertidal no man’s land, as Robert MacFarlane said in his book The Old Ways (Penguin). A world of merging blues, greens, silvers and golds. A world washed clear of footprints twice a day; evidence of all visitors swept away.
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My eyes skim the surfaces like a stone over water – flitting over before settling, focusing, sinking in. Looking at the pebbles at my feet I can’t help wondering where each one came from. Every colour, every crystal, every chip and change in texture; they all hold secrets.

Today I feel immensely lucky, scrambling up and over ancient lava flows and solidified ash, carved and moulded by the sea. Walking the shoreline in total peace, far from the quiet bustle of the town of North Berwick, I’m able to pick out the story that the rocks tell through landforms and shapes. Not that I can place everything, but that for me is not the point – I never claim to be an expert in all the geological intricacies and details. Rather, I’m a bit of a magpie, a jack-of-all-trades, I’m intent on unfolding stories from the landscapes in front of me.
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Odd that this world of blue and green was once the realm of volcanoes. Looking up, the series of igneous islands that line up along the East Lothian coastline stand out against the sea and sky. The result of an intensive period of volcanic activity in the area around 350 million years ago, Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat, the Bass Rock, and Berwick Law are but a few of the ancient volcanoes that made the landscape what it is today.

The volcanic rock I’m scrambling over is fine-grained, the surface polished smooth by the work of the waves. It’s watercolour-washed; blue-grey to green, matched to its surroundings. Cylindrical pothots pepper its surface, ranging from thumb-sized perfect seats for pebbles to those holding sizable rock pools; water snatched from the sea and held, warming in the sun, until surrendered again on the next high tide.
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Time hangs suspended in the air above the sea. All slows, simplifies. I’m honed in to the sound of water rippling, barnacles popping and crackling in the sun. Light, reflection, blue air, stillness. An oystercatcher, stark against the background, smart in his black and white suit with vibrant red legs. I close my eyes and he is still there, vibrant against the shimmering heat haze.

Somehow, yet again, I have lost hours wandering the fringes of the sea. Alone in no man’s land.

All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015

Memories of the Kinkell Braes, St. Andrews

I grew up in St. Andrews, Fife, on the East coast of Scotland. An agate stone I found in my garden when I was a very young child sparked something – how could a dull brown stone reveal banded grey-blue concentric circles inside? And how did it end up in my garden? Truth be told, I suspect it travelled from elsewhere in the gravel that lined the garden borders. Nevertheless, a fascination was born at that moment; I knew instinctively it was different, obscure, a change to all around it. To this day I retain that trait – the eye to pick out whatever is different in a surface strewn with pebbles and shells, the one fragment that is misplaced.

A friend’s mother picks up on the glimmers of an obsession and buys me an enormous book about fossils for my 9th birthday. I become fixated on ammonites. I maintained a childish refusal to believe that ammonites cannot be found near St. Andrews. My mother was unable to travel far, and so I was restricted to the beauty of my immediate surroundings – I headed to the coast, and the rocky shoreline to the east of the town, the Kinkell Braes.

So I start hunting. Fossil hunting. In and out of the coves along the Braes at the foot of the sandstone cliffs, focusing intently on every pebble and fragment at my feet, to the amusement and at times sheer frustration of my father. In my ammonite-zoned-in-state I do not think to look up and examine the trackways of the giant sea-scorpion, or Eurypterid, which must have been in the overhanging sandstone next to me on numerous occasions. I remember fossilised shells – bivalves and brachiopods – crinoid corals, and fossilised tree roots and tree trunks.

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I never find a single hint of an ammonite.

As a teenager, walks with my father are abandoned and I start to take my friends with me. We check for good weather and favourable tides. We walk for hours, scrambling up and over seaweed-blanketed rock, raised and tilted slabs and volcanic dykes. Every trip, we find treasure. Agate stones, fragments of metamorphosis, chemical precipitates, and above all, colour. A friend of mine in later life comments on my eye for obscurities – to me it is simply about spotting subtleties in colour change, texture change, finding the ‘odd one out’, finding the ones that tell a story.

At seventeen, I discover the bigger picture. Layers of sandstone, mudstones and coals laid down in the early Carboniferous when this part of Scotland lay to the south of the equator. Then a period of deformation in the late Carboniferous – earthquakes and volcanic vents result in a landscape twisted under pressure. The bends and folds in the sedimentary rocks are clearly visible today, with anticlines, synclines and dome structures found all along the coastline. From the cliff path, the anticlines and synclines are laid out on the shore below in several localities. The horizontal layers were pushed from both sides, rippled like a wrinkled carpet. Then they were tilted vertically and the top layers gradually eroded away, exposing perfect waves of alternating rocks whenever the tide is out.

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The Rock and Spindle, a sea-stack formed from the remains of a 290-million-year-old basaltic volcano a few miles along the coast, is so-called because it resembles the tools traditionally used by local people to spin wool. There are a number of igneous rocks to be found in this area, including tuff, or consolidated ash, which fell into the chamber of the volcano on several occasions when the cone collapsed in on itself. The ‘spindle’ is what remains of an intrusion into the volcano – basaltic columns cooled to form a perfect wheel of spokes, radiating out from a central point. I remember being puzzled by the spindle when I first saw it, again at a fairly young age. To me it looked like someone had pressed a huge bicycle wheel into the rock, leaving a bizarre imprint. I also remember my father’s tales of climbing the rocks as a student twenty years before – a somewhat dangerous activity that I would guess is now seriously frowned upon as the stack is fragmenting away.

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I look back and recognise the delightful variety in the geology I had on my own doorstep as a child. Back then it seemed so awe-inspiring (and even awe-ful!) to look back so far in time that I simply couldn’t take it all in. It was just my home, my patch, my place. I knew every nook and cranny along that coast, and I am delighted my parents ‘just let me go’.

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All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015

Why write about landscapes?

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Why write about a landscape? Why not ‘just go’ and experience it, and remember it, rather than write it down? Is there a purpose to reflecting on how being out in a wild place makes you feel? Does trying to put it into words actually detract from a memory and render it less crystalline? At what point does writing about such places become waxing lyrical, or worse yet, boasting, at somehow having the time and the inclination to go in search of the wild?

These questions arose in a recent chat with friends over the idea of writing about landscapes, geology, and the natural world, as I am drawn to more and more. For me, there is joy in forging a memory from the visual, sensuous experience of being outdoors; etching it out in words if you like. Nor does the place in question have to be classed as ‘wilderness’ – landscapes of all kinds, in all places, pull me in and compel me to find out more.

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Since childhood, I have wanted to know why something looks the way it does, why a landform is that shape or a rock is that colour. My visual memory is not always enough; writing it down helps me recall details of those shapes and colours that I would otherwise lose. I’ve almost given up taking photographs too, favouring written language scribbled in notebooks that I cart around wherever I go.

I was lucky enough to have a geography teacher at secondary school who appeared to be equally as fascinated by every landform and rock formation he came across as I was. He took us out in the minibus all over Fife and Tayside, off road at times, exploring off the beaten track. He encouraged us to see beyond the surface or the immediacy of what was in front of us; he encouraged us to question everything the landscape had to offer.

Writing about landscapes gives me a sense of preserving a moment or memory, so as not to lose it. Perhaps even more importantly, however, it gives me a chance to try and help preserve the place itself as well, by alerting others to its beauty or importance so it might be looked after long into the future. I realise this may be futile, in many cases, but I like to know I’ve tried. It is something I have effectively been doing all my life – attempting to capture a place as it is at that moment; to explain, teach, inspire, and above all to give something back to the land in the hope it is looked after as it should be. My recent work with the Scottish Geodiversity Forum has only enriched this idea further.

I do admit to working in blurred boundaries with my own pieces; writing about landscapes in a way that often bridges science and creative writing. This is almost entirely due to my own background – a former Master of Arts student with half a degree in geology and geography, and a wealth of self-taught knowledge in all manner of sciences. My current job is as a science writer: which can often by necessity be a very prescriptive, methodical way of communicating science. Yet somehow with my own writing I often find myself lost in ‘no man’s land’. The accurate and interesting communication of the details of landscape, geodiversity and how people interact with the land around them is crucial. Explaining ‘why it is the way it is’ carefully and correctly does not necessarily mean it has to be ‘academically scientific’ in style.

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So, is writing about landscape and geodiversity just a way of showing people what you have seen when you can’t take them there yourself? Is writing about it the next best thing? There is the hope that your readers might seek out the places you describe, or at the very least begin to take notice of their own unique surroundings and try to understand them better. My main aim is, I guess, to try and help preserve landscapes through careful, engaging language on the page.

I would argue a definite place for ‘landscape writing’, and a purpose. If landscapes and wild places are to be safe from the encroachment of urbanisation, from being spoilt by tourism, or over-exploited for natural resources, these places need to be championed in as many ways, and by as many voices, as possible. Just as much as lesser-known but equally as beautiful or important places deserve to be recognised for what they are. We are privileged, in Scotland, and in the UK as a whole, to live and work within some of the most diverse and ancient landscapes in the world. Perhaps, at times, I will verge on waxing lyrical, but these pages are ‘my voice’ added into the mix.

All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015

The Isle of Rùm, Scotland: The beauty of ancient volcanism

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Quite simply, the Isle of Rùm is beautiful. From the mainland the silhouetted outline of the Rùm Cuillin ridge tugs at you, willing you to look closer. With a little imagination, and a little bit of geology, I’ll help you do just that.

The Isle of Rùm is what remains of a massive volcanic complex, part of the main series of volcanic activity on what is now the West Coast of Scotland around 60 million years ago, during the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. As the Americas and Greenland ‘unzipped’ and pulled away from Scotland and Ireland, the Earth’s crust began to thin and stretch. This thinning of the crust allowed magma to rise and reach the surface in the form of fissure volcanoes, which stretched the length of Scotland, from North Skye to the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland.

At this point, there was no ocean around the West of Scotland, only mile upon mile of basaltic lava flows from the fissure volcanoes. Imagine a vast, flat plain interspersed with cracks through which the lava spurts, rather like parts of Iceland today. As the lava was basaltic there was little in the way of explosive volcanic activity. Some of the early basalts are preserved in the lava fields on the Isle of Eigg, a few miles from Rùm.

As the heat from the fissures slowly melted the Earth’s crust, an altogether different pattern of volcanic activity emerged. The Earth’s crust contains silica-based rocks, the melting of which produces silica-rich magma. Unlike basalt, silica-rich magma is highly explosive. Around 60.5 million years ago, a bulge appeared in the Earth’s crust where Rùm is now, rising above the surrounding land. The pressure inside the newly-emerging volcano was immense. Eventually, a massive explosion underground caused the caldera to collapse. The explosion was perhaps one magnitude higher than Krakatoa, similar in terms of devastating impact on the landscape to the Minoan eruption at Santorini.

Evidence of this first stage of the Rùm volcanic complex is found in the landscape and rocks around the Rum Cuillin. Surrounding the hills is the central ring complex, around which the Torridonian sandstone bedrock is buckled upwards and altered by the heat from the volcano. A short walk from Kinloch up towards Coire Dubh lays the evidence out perfectly. On the rim of Coire Dubh are the remains of pyroclastic flows – fast-flowing, ground-hugging clouds of gas and broken rocks which travel at speeds of up to 450 miles per hour, flattening everything they touch. Clasts which have been thrown high up in the air can be found embedded in the rocks at Coire Dubh. Elsewhere, on the hillside above the main track from Kinloch to Harris, a fantastic example of mega-breccia can be seen – a rock incorporating huge chunks of gabbro (basaltic rock) up to a metre in diameter thrown up from deep underground by the sheer force of the eruption.

Much of the evidence for stage one, however, was ‘shoved out of the way’ by the rise of a massive magma chamber, the remains of which make up the Rùm Cuillin hills we see today (after extensive and very rapid erosion). The main difference between stage one and stage two is the make-up of the magma – stage one was silica-rich, stage two saw a return to basaltic lavas, creating a far less explosive, though no less massive, shield-volcano.

The Rùm Cuillin are famous for their layered, crystalline appearance. The unusual structure comes from the way in which they were formed inside a slowly cooling magma chamber. Over hundreds of years, the 2nd stage volcano pulsed away, pushing up new injections of magma into the chamber every so often as the material from the previous pulse cooled down. It is thought that the rocks in the Cuillin hills crystallised no more than 2 kilometres below the surface of the Earth’s crust.

In the centre of the island, not far from the main track to Harris from Kinloch, lies a slab of troctolite rock from the centre of the magma chamber. Displaced and tilted from its original horizontal settling position, it holds the intriguing imprint of a piece of softer peridotite rock which has dented the crystal layers surrounding it. The likely explanation of this anomaly is that the peridotite fell from the upper part of the magma chamber whilst the troctolite was still a semi-molten ‘crystal slush’ in the bottom of the chamber, disturbing the layering and preserving the indentation from the peridotite falling into it. The layers above are unmarked, suggesting they settled and solidified after the block fell.

Once the 2nd stage volcanic activity had died away, the complex was subjected to one final ‘last gasp’ from the Loch Long fault, which runs South West to North East across the island. The final movements of the fault shunted everything north of the fault northeastwards, splitting the volcanic evidence and disrupting the geology of the island. Other minor faults move elsewhere as a result, so in some places dykes and cone sheets of injected material from the volcanoes are also interrupted.

Two million years after the Rùm complex, the huge basalt volcanoes on Skye erupted in the last stage of volcanism in the West of Scotland. Bloodstone Hill, to the north of Rùm, is a basaltic lava flow from the Skye volcanoes. Lying between the Bloodstone lavas are layers of sedimentary conglomerate, containing boulders of gabbro and peridotite from the Rùm central complex, showing that the magma chamber was already exposed and eroding away rapidly by this point. Bloodstone itself, from which the hill gets its name, is a chemical precipitate flecked with red iron oxide which formed in bubbles in the basaltic lava flows. These beautiful stones appear at Guirdil Bay, beneath Bloodstone Hill, in every shade of green imaginable.

For me, the Isle of Rùm has a beauty, intricacy and power like few other places in Scotland. Once you have its geological story at your fingertips, it only adds to the pull of the place, and every visit leaves you wanting more.

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All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015