Andreas Späth

Rocks deserve conservation, too!

2014-02-04 07:54

Andreas Wilson-Späth

When I was a student, I had many an aborted conversation that floundered on the traditional “So what do you do?” intro.

Me: “No, geology. With a ‘g’, not a ‘th’.”
Them (perplexed): “Oh geology. So, …what? You, like, look at rocks and stuff?”
The end.

That about sums up many people’s perception of geology. Exactly why anyone would want to spend any time looking at “rocks and stuff” whatsoever is beyond most. Rocks are generally perceived as obstacles - things that need to be broken down, things that get in the way and things that get into your shoes.

But they’re so much more than that.

Rocks can hold information about the environments in which they were formed and the processes that were involved in forming them. They contain evidence of what life was like on earth millions of years in the past and how it evolved. They tell the story, not of a dead lump of matter hurtling through space, but of a dynamic planet that has changed continuously for 4.5 billion years and continues to do so until today, even though humans find this difficult to perceive.

Given the right tools, rocks can be read like books. Thrillers with world-destroying meteor-impact endings, contemplative novels about the meaning of time, epic family sagas ending in extinction, to name just a few genres.

And you don’t have to be a professional geologist to learn about the world from rocks. A few simple tips will get you started. In addition, rocks are widely accessible – they’ve practically got us surrounded – and, unlike birds and butterflies or other things that make for interesting study, they don’t easily get away when you’re trying to look at them.

What’s even more exciting is that South Africa has some of the most interesting rocks and rock formations anywhere in the world.

Did you know, for instance, that during a stop-over on his travels around the globe on the Beagle, Charles Darwin investigated the granite outcropping on Cape Town’s Sea Point waterfront to consider evidence suggesting that it had formed from molten magma instead of having been deposited from seawater?

Or that some of the oldest rocks in the world – up to 3.6 billion years in age – can be found near Barberton in Mpumalanga? Or that the steep cliffs that form the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment are the result of massive volcanic eruptions which inundated much of what is now South Africa around 180 million years ago? And why exactly is Table Mountain so flat?

So why shouldn’t sites of special geological interest be conserved, just like valuable ecosystems and plant and animal species are?

It turns out that the rest of the world is already making efforts to preserve its geological heritage in so-called geoparks. These are areas that contain special geological landmarks and are set up to raise awareness about the connections between society and planetary processes as well as broader environmental issues, to foster sustainable community-based ecotourism, often in rural areas, and more.

The Global Geoparks Network is supported by UNESCO and currently includes 100 parks in 30 countries. The leaders in the area are China and Europe, where dozens of geoparks have been established.

Although there are some promising initiatives, there are currently no geoparks in South Africa, which is a shame, considering our exceptional geological heritage. Isn’t it time that we started to look after our non-living natural environment as much as we conserve our fauna and flora?

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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