More sedimentology than you can shake a stick at

This was originally posted at: http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/?p=549

Welcome to Day 3 of the EGU Annual Meeting. Do check the Geology for Global Development page too for some cracking updates on the sessions, particularly on the more ‘applied’ side of the geosciences, by Rosalie Testovin. This post is a quick break-down of some cool science from the morning session on the interaction between tectonics (faulting and folding from plate-related movements) and stratigraphy (the way in which rock packages are linked with each other). Naturally, I had to cover this one, as it was co-sponsored by the Geological Society of London (I’m an ex-employee), and was convened by a member of my department (Dr. Alex Whittaker) at Imperial College with another giving a talk (Prof. Phillip Allen). Here’s a quick break down of some of the talks (at least in as much detail as to be expected from a vertebrate palaeontologist):

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Science Says: Groundwater Contamination in Pennsylvania Unrelated to Fracking Operations

One of the key topics at the moment regarding the future of global energy revolves around the extraction of gas from shale formations through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. There is a vigorous and strongly polarised debate between pro- and anti-fracking campaigners, based around environmental concerns.  Many of the issues raised though are just ill-informed crap. The media are partially to blame for this, as well as the ridiculously naff Gaslands viral ‘documentary’, ironically so as it is devoid of any actual facts.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) have recently released a review of environmental risks associated with fracking, and concluding, despite it being in no way their position to, that shale gas extraction should go ahead in the UK. The Geological Society recently held a shale gas briefing meeting where gas extraction was discussed purely in a geoscientific context. What these both provided, adversely to so much of the material out on the interwebz, is evidence. What they both seem to at least imply, is that fracking CAN be done. What they don’t address is the question of whether it SHOULD be done, in alignment with the plans to decarbonise UK industry and forge a Green Economy in the UK to mitigate climate change. Despite this, the debate between many parties continues about environmental risks. Although not all have been addressed, many of the ‘big ones’ have, and subsequently demonstrated to be non-issues.

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Middle-Earth gets a Geological Makeover

As if J. R. R. Tolkien wasn’t brilliant enough with his creation of Middle-Earth, it appears that using his numerous maps and illustrations provided, supplemented by observations from within the texts themselves, a geological reconstruction can be achieved! I recently came across this old article from the Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Oxford, England, 1992, and figured it was worth sharing.

The first attempt at a geological history of Middle-Earth was Margaret Howes in 1967 in a piece entitled “The Elder Ages and Later Glaciations off the Pleistocene Epoch”. Here, she endeavoured to recapitulate the successive geomorphologies from the time when Morgoth (the real bad guy in Middle-Earth) was overthrown to beyond the time when Aragorn adopted rule over Gondor. However, this work has been recognised as being too far adrift from Tolkien’s original creations, drawing in too much from Earth’s own recent geological history.

This work was truly over-shadowed by that of Robert Reynolds, who in 1974 wrote his “The geomorphology of Middle-Earth”. This actually incorporated the theory of plate tectonics to the entirety of Middle-Earth (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Reynold' tectonic reconstruction of Middle-Earth (click for larger image)

The extension of this by the authors of the article is presented in Figure 2. They revise the number of tectonic plates, as well as apply modern boundary terminology (e.g., strike-slip, triple-junction etc.). The result really is quite a nice read of the fusion of a modern day description of tectonics with a seminal creation that has inspired generations, and hopefully will inspire more to come. It’s great to come across Mount Doom being described as a “hotspot” – it really adds a slant to the old “volcano lair” for bad guys. It also helps to answer questions which I’m sure plagued geologists throughout the books and films, such as ‘where did the mythril come from?’, and ‘how did the mountains surrounding Mordor get such a weird shape?’. All in all, it’s an impressive article that successfully increases the dimensionality of a masterpiece.

Fig 2. Current interpretation of the principal tectonic features of Middle-Earth (click for larger image)

If anyone would like the complete original article, I’d be happy to send a scanned version – it really is quite a spectacular piece of Middle-Earth metadata.

Howes, M. M. (1967) The Elder Ages and the later glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch, Tolkien Journal, 3(2), 3-15

Reynolds, R. C. (1974) The geomorphology of Middle-Earth, The Swansea Geographer, 11, 67-71

Sarjeant, W. A. S. (1992) The geology of Middle-Earth, Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference