FROM the breathtaking Atlas mountains in Morocco to the expansive deserts of the US, Christopher Jackson’s work has taken him to some incredible places. Incredible and sometimes risky, too: he has been held at gunpoint and put in prison in the line of duty. Why does he do it? Just for the sake of a few old rocks.
Geologists might have a long list of adventure stories to recite and an enviable set of stamps in their passports, but Jackson says that in many people’s eyes, they don’t have a good reputation. After all, they often use their knowledge of Earth’s rocks and tectonic processes to identify rich mineral seams to dig up and fossil fuels to drill, all of which is a horror to the environment.
Now, Jackson is seeking to flip the story. As chair in sustainable geoscience at the University of Manchester, UK, he says geologists must play a crucial part in fighting climate change. That means helping to create technologies that allow us to live more sustainably and spreading the word about our planet’s climate history. Earth’s rocks were formed at various points in the past, and their chemistry and structure reflect the conditions that prevailed at the time. This geological record can be read to reveal how our planet’s climate has warmed and cooled over the aeons – a story that can help us better understand climate change in our own time. Jackson spoke to New Scientist about his epic travels, how geology can help us live with less environmental impact and the difficult task of improving diversity in geosciences.
Abigail Beall: Your job has taken you to lots of exciting places. Do you have a favourite?
Christopher Jackson: As a geologist, you go places that few others ever get to visit because you’re interested in rare, weird rocks and those tend to be in far-flung places. That’s always a tingle.
The Atlas mountains were pretty spectacular. I went there to study the way rock salt deforms to generate giant structures within the Earth’s crust. You drive across these desert plains for several hours and you eventually start to wind up in mountains, at really high elevations. You go from desert to forested areas to then bare rocks. It’s remote and beautiful country with beautiful people living there.
I imagine it can be dangerous at times.
My colleagues and I have had guns pointed at us in Egypt. We were arrested there and had our passports confiscated. In Argentina a few years ago, we got arrested and put in a prison in a cell overnight. I’ve had racist abuse in the US while doing fieldwork at the Colorado-Utah border. Sometimes, people can be suspicious of geologists on their land, even though you have the right permissions to be there.
A lot of this work is to understand Earth’s past climate. Why is that so important?
The trouble is that in some people’s minds, it’s cold at the North and South Pole and it’s very hot in the deserts, yet people have managed to survive in all those places. So what harm can a few degrees of global warming do?
The information we can gather from layers of rocks built up in Earth’s surface over millennia can answer that question. It tells us how the changing climate impacted the existence of living creatures on Earth. As selfish beings, that’s what we’re concerned about, right?
“We need to be aware of geological history and how it could replay in our time”
The rock record tells us that abrupt, large swings in climate, such as we’re presently seeing, can lead to the dramatic loss of life. Looking back into the geological record gives us a baseline to understand what we’re living through now and what we might live through in the future.
How can rocks tell us about the effects that past changes to the climate had on life?
The first job is to understand what the climate was like in the past, and for that we need to use proxies, signals in ancient rocks that vary in ways that were affected by things like temperature or rainfall. We commonly analyse the chemical composition of very small marine fossils called foraminifera in the rocks. Sometimes the composition and texture of the rocks themselves record climatically driven events such as sea level rise. The other thing we do is use the fossil record to look at extinctions. Then we can compare the two timelines and see correlations between changes in temperature, say, and what happened to Earth’s biodiversity.
What sorts of things do we learn from those timelines?
One interesting point is how things living on land and in the seas were affected differently by climate change in the past, with life in the ocean often getting hit harder. The air getting hotter is one thing, but that also leads to oceans becoming more acidic and that is another thing entirely for the animals that live in the marine realm. We humans are land-dwelling creatures, but we rely on the oceans for food and energy, so we need to be aware of this geological history and how it could replay in our time.
Why do you feel that geologists don’t have the best reputation?
Geology is naturally a global subject: the processes are not limited by country borders. But a lot of people’s understanding of geology is through a colonial lens of resource piracy: “I know there’s a mine here and I know this mine basically killed a bunch of people” or “there’s an oil field and people make a load of money and they come down in fancy cars, while we don’t have any food”.
In other words, many people’s understanding of geology is a net negative one, and I understand why. We’re going to have to learn from the past. My plan, as chair in sustainable geoscience, is to continue to make the public and government aware of the key role geoscience plays, and will continue to play, in tackling the climate crisis.
How can geology help fight climate change?
Geology is going to be fundamental to developing low-carbon economies. If we are to have more energy sources that are not based on fossil fuels, we need geologists to help locate and develop geothermal and hydrothermal resources for power, for instance. Geologists are trained to visualise and model heat transfer and fluid flow in the Earth’s subsurface. This is critical to understanding which rocks and locations might be most productive in terms of hydrothermal energy, and for drilling wells that help optimise the use of this resource.
Exploring the rocks of the UK, the stuff right beneath our feet, is really exciting. It turns out we have fantastic geology suitable for geothermal heat extraction in Cornwall, for example.
We also need geologists to contribute to carbon capture and storage. They have the skills to locate rocks and structures that may trap carbon dioxide securely for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. They are trained to use borehole data and geophysical scans of the Earth’s subsurface to build up an understanding of the distribution of different rock types. This kind of analysis is teaching us that the Irish Sea and the North Sea are locations where the geology is appropriate for CO2 storage.
By the way, geoscience is also really important for helping us achieve many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the internationally agreed targets for improving people’s standard of living around the world. Some of the most important goals include giving people access to energy and water. Geology has been, and will continue to be, crucial for locating these resources.
Earlier this year, you were a co-author of a paper about the racial diversity crisis in geosciences in the UK. What did you find out?
It was a study of racial and ethnic diversity in UK geosciences higher education. The results were totally depressing, but not surprising. We saw there’s a gross under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in undergraduate geosciences, and we see the same pattern for postgraduate geoscience studies as well. Roughly 19 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds in the UK population come from a Black or ethnic minority background. But if you look at people of those ages studying science generally, it’s only around 17 per cent, so a slight under-representation. Our study found that in geology, it is substantially smaller again, at only 10 per cent.
Have you seen any changes in this respect since the start of your career?
Not in terms of statistics, but I have seen an increase in the willingness to discuss and address the underlying issues. This gives me hope for the future. But it takes a huge amount of effort, and it takes away from the thing you want to do, which is science.
Not many people grow up saying: “You know what? I want to spend a lot of time discussing these really emotionally challenging things, which are upsetting to talk about and might not lead to change.” We’re drawn into that fight to help more junior people. It is a difficult space to navigate, and it will never make you popular. But I don’t particularly care about that.
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