Thursday, 23 December 2010

Cumbrian & Japanese earthquakes - December 21st 2010.

With me half way through a course on the subject of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, there has been interesting news this week about earthquakes in Cumbria, England and Japan.

The Cumbrian quake, a relatively modest magnitude 3.5 ML is unlikely to have caused significant damage, but was nevertheless felt throughout Cumbria, in Galloway and southern Scotland. Detailed info can be found at the British Geological Survey website here.

Meanwhile, on the same day, a more potentially destructive quake was experienced in the Bonin Island region of Japan with a magnitude of 7.4 at a depth of 14 kilometers. While we Brits might get excited by an admittedly infrequent but modest 3.5 quake, the Japanese have had to endure an alarming succession of 86, yes, eighty-six quakes between Tuesday 21st and Thursday 23rd December and all of them have been in excess of 4.7! I know aftershocks are likely after any earthquake, but 86? Scary stuff! Take a look at the list of mgnitudes on this website.

This will all be of use later in my course I'm sure.

Cheers for now,

Sunday, 19 December 2010

S170: Darwin and Evolution - The Result!


Sorry it has been a while, but what with another Open University course to get to grips with, a ridiculously busy life playing 'taxi' in order to ferry the girls to their umpteen social activities and then TWO WEEKS with the flu (yes, REAL flu not a mythical man-flu!), there has been precious little time for anything else in my cluttered schedule! So much for blogging more in 2010! Sigh!

Anyway, I've mentioned a few times on these pages how uninspired I was by the 'Darwin & Evolution' course, S170. The 10 credit, Level 1, OU course seemed like it would be a good follow up to the truly excellent 'Fossils and the History of Life'. I posted the following feedback onto the OU's website for S170:-

Opinion seems somewhat divided on this course with some really enjoying it and others being decidedly unimpressed. I'm afraid I fall into the latter category. After taking 'Fossils and the History of Life' and loving it, I thought this would be a good follow up course but for some reason it just never 'grabbed' me at all. The enthusiasm was there to begin with and I prepared by reading Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' on the run up, but the study materials managed to kill off that interest completely.
The main reason I think was because of the lack of printed course book. The need to be constantly switching between the online course materials and the set book '99% Ape' was very inconvenient and meant I never got into a settled study routine. I found '99% Ape' to be horribly disjointed and frankly, dull and needs a radical re-write in my opinion!
Also, the well intentioned snail 'megalab' study just did not work in practice. Unlike many, I did manage to find lots of snails, but frustratingly few if any suitable samples to compare them with in my area, which rendered the whole thing a bit farcical. The OU needs to seriously rethink this study in future presentations.
Unlike the period following each of my previous courses, I have no idea if I have passed this course at all, which I think says it all.

I don't think I was being overly harsh either. I really didn't have a clue whether I had properly grasped the material and done enough to pass the course. Last Friday however, I found to my relief that I did manage a good PASS. Hoorah!

Frustratungly, the OU no longer gives a numerical mark for these short science courses, prefering to give a simple, brief indication as to how well you have achieved various 'Key Learning Outcomes'. Now I really hate this modern politically correct tosh - give me a damned percentage mark any day! But at least I did manage 'Well Achieved' in every category except one where I nevertheless achieved 'Achieved', if you follow me? So, I would appear that, despite not enjoyimng this course as much as previous ones, I did manage a very good pass and its another 10m credits in the bag towards a degree, making 80 in total so far!

Not that I will end up with a BSc in Geosciences any more. Oh no, the OU in its infinite wisdom has decided to scrap named degrees in science subjects and are intent on lumping them together under the umbrella called 'Natural Sciences'. While the content of my degree can be made up predominantly of Geology and Earth Science modules, the degree I will be awarded will be 'BSc in Natural Sciences'. Hmm, not at all convinced this is a great idea. It seems a retrograde step to me and from what I hear on the grapevine, there is a move to get the OU to rethink this decision. Fingers crossed, because if there's anything that will push me towards doing a degree at Derby University in preference to the OU it is the fact that I can get a GEOLOGY degree at Derby! Come on Open University - think about it!?!

Time to get on with Volcanoes, earthquakes and Tsunamis. Fascinating stuff and more on this one later!

Cheers for now!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Education - it's a wonderful thing!

After finally getting the less than inspiring 'S170: Darwin & Evolution' course out of the way, I'm now already into the next challenge, which is another 10 credit, Science Short Course entitled S186: Volcanoes, Earthquakes and Tsunamis. And what a cracking course this promises to be!

The leader of this particular module is none other than David Rothery, the volcanologist whose talk I attended last month at the Open University Open Day to mark 40 years of Earth Sciences courses at the OU. (Click here for my post about it)

After witnessing David's talk about his media involvement during the Icelandic volcanic dust storm crisis, it became a 'must do' from that point on. The man is clearly passionate about his subject, but doesn't take himself too seriously. One interview he did for ITV News in particular needs to be seen! Click here to view it. Watch out for the amazing disappearing car! My wife Ruth, doesn't seem to understand quite why I find it so hilarious, but it tickled me, but then, I'm easily amused as Ruth will tell you!

I only received the course materials last weekend, but I'm already hooked in a way that I never was by the Darwin course. It's all down to the style of writing I think. Ruth, who is an English graduate (with FIRST CLASS HONOURS I hasten to add) would be able to explain exactly how and why the writing was so dull and uninspiring on that course and how in just a few opening paragraphs of this new course I am totally hooked! It's not as if I wasn't interested in 'evolution' either. I started off keen enough, but the dullness of the course book killed off the enthusiasm entirely, which was a shame!

Anyway, I mustn't dwell on the negative, but concentrate on the delights of 'volcanoes' and already some long held misconceptions have come to light and been soundly kicked into touch. Firstly, I've always been led to believe that the earth's crust lies above a viscous but generally liquid mantle. Plates move about over considerable lengths of time, moving apart at constructive boundaries and moving together at destructive boundaries but by and large, it's pretty much liquid down there. WRONG! The very first sentence of the opening chaper of the course set text 'Teach Yourself Volcanoes, Earthquakes and Tsunamis', by the course leader states:
"It is a common misconception that the interior of the Earth is molten".
Er, yes indeed. Oops! But then as I read on it becomes obvious that it simply cannot be. Pressure, obviously, ensures that despite it's heat, most of the rock in the mantle is in fact solid. Hmmm!

Secondly, regarding plate tectonics, Mr Rothery drops this bombshell on page 11:
"it is important to be clear that these tectonic plates are not rafts of crust moving over the mantle. The Earth's crust is firmly joined to the part of the mantle immediately below it".

That was a bit of a revelation too in that the top 100 km or so of the mantle is just as strong as the crust and is joined to the crust to make a single 'mechanical layer'. Interesting stuff!

Third eye opener concerned the next layer down, that of the lower mantle. This layer it turns out while not rigid, is neverhteless solid and yet slowly circulates at a rate of a few centimetres per year. Now this is a difficult concept to grasp but a good analogy is to compare the rock of the lower mantle with say, a slab of Devon toffee! Okay, a bit bizarre, but stay with me okay? Now, put the slab in the fridge for a while and it will be hard enough to shatter if whalloped with a hammer. Go on try it if you've got a spare slab lying around! However, if you leave another slab in the fridge with slightly less than half its length overhanging the fridge shelf and leave it for a few months, it will eventually bend over the shelf. Okay, I've not actually tried this myself - there's little or no chance for a slab of toffee surviving for long enough in my house antway, but I'm told it does work! Anyway, my point is that, yes the toffee is obviously solid, but will still bend if given sufficient time. So it is with the rock that makes up the lower mantle which is subject to what is called 'solid state convection'.

And all this is even before the course (or 'module' as the OU now like to call them) officially starts on Saturday 13th! And I haven't even mentioned 'cowpat bombs' yet!?! Maybe next time dear friends!

Cheers for now!


Friday, 5 November 2010

Flamborough Head - August 2010

Well, it's taken a while, but I finally persuaded Anna to download the photographs she took on our brief visit to Flamborough Head while on holiday in Lincolnshire back in early August.

So, Flamborough Head is located off the east coast of England, north-east of the coastal town of Bridlington. My family and I started this particular day with a visit to the rather disappointingly sad spectacle of Scarborough, a place which rather reminded me of Blackpool 'up north' - all a bit run down and desperately trying to return to it's former glory days of the fifties and sixties. I kinda felt that these types of seaside holiday resort need to reinvent themselves somehow. The days of donkey rides and 'Kiss me Quick' hats are long gone I think!

Anyway, our detour to Flamborough was the highlight of the day - for me at least! For those wishing to visit, there is plenty of parking space available near the lighthouse and access to the chalk cliffs is possible down some scarily steep and slightly uneven steps, but it's worth the effort, trust me!

'Yours truly' with the stacks and cliffs of Upper Cretaceous chalk at Flamborough Head

The photo of me was taken by this lovely person, my step-daughter Anna-Ruth. The equally lovely Amy, her younger sister, declined the opportunity to descend the steep steps and stayed up top with her mum!

Anna-Ruth by the way, studied for a GCSE in Geography virtually on her own. The teaching for this subject seemed pretty rubbish in truth, so it's to her enormous credit that she passed it so well! On our walk down the steps (see later photo!) she proudly pointed to the stack and told me all about its formation, so there's definitely a potential geologist deep within her! She currently has her heart set on drama, but you never know!
Now here's a thought . . . she could forget drama and do a Geology degree instead! We could even study at the same time on the same course? How cool would that be? Actually, to the average teenager, that would probably be the most embarrassing thing ever! In a classroom with their 'old man'!?! OMG!!!

'Nature' - the worlds greatest sculpter!

Anyway, I digress. The most striking thing about Flamborough is the distinctly layered chalk cliffs and their associated features. The great accumulation of tiny, fossilised sea life that make up this rock took place some 70 - 90 million years ago. The classic stack shown above, formed comparatively quickly over thousands of years. Constant battering of the now exposed rock by the waves, erodes weak areas in the rock eventually creating caves. Where this occurs on an area jutting out into the sea the cave will eventually break through to form an arch. With further erosion the roof can collapse to form an isolated lump of rock - the stack shown above.

Another view of the stack, chalk cliffs and glacial till above.

Above the chalk cliffs lies a layer of glacial till which is a layer of deposits left behind by a glacier during the last ice age.

I have since learnt that there is a fine example of an arch here, I think on the far right  in the above photo, though from our view point we couldn't see through it!

Layered chalk cliff at Flamborough Head.

See what I mean? Scary steps, but solid and safe enough!

Okay, now this is where I need some help. Maybe in 'x' years time after I've actually done my geology degree, the answer to this will be more obvious, but I am currently a bit puzzled by this photo. Throughout the cliffs, the chalk layers are either horizontal or dipping about 10 degrees or so. Here however, at the bottom of the steps there is this section which seems to fold upwards as can be seen at lower right of the photo. At the upper middle of the photo the beds are at about 80 degrees from horizontal! So whats gone on here? Seems a quite localised fold that's quite out of step with the surrounding features!?! Answers on a postcard to . . . .

Me looking for fossils but not finding anything significant - or even insignificant for that matter!

Beautiful! Anna obviously, not the layered chalk and dipping beds! Obviously!

So there you have it. The geological delight that is Flamborough Head - go visit next time you are on the east coast!

Cheers for now,

Sunday, 10 October 2010

40 Years of Earth & Planetery Sciences at the OU

This week has seen a significant anniversary at the Open University. It is now forty years since the start of the Department of Earth Sciences at the Uni. The late Professor Ian Gass lead the way with the guiding principle that 'excellent research breeds excellent teaching'.

To celebrate this milestone, the department held a 2 day conference followed by an Open Day on Saturday 9th October, and I managed to make the short journey down to the campus in Milton Keynes on Saturday. There were lots of things going on - some activities to stop the kids getting too bored, such as panning for gold and making plaster casts of fossils and even 'dressing up as a scientist' and having your picture taken! Tempting, I have to say, but I resisted. I was there for the talks. Just to be sure I booked to hear all the listed speakers with one in particular who was simply a 'must see'. More of that later.

First up was Dr Mark Davies, an ex OU PhD student and now working for ARKeX, a geophysical survey company. His talk was an interesting look at geogravity and how gravity changes according to mass. He showed how techniques for measuring these variations are used to locate oil reserves. Interesting stuff, but not my thing really. Exploration geology is not really where my interest lies, though it might have been if I had studied geology back in the '80s as I'd originally planned.

Next up was meant to be Dr Phil Bland, another ex OU student, talking about the oriigin of meteorites in the solar system, but unfortunately he had been taken ill and couldn't attend. Rather than stay for the 'emergency stand-on, I decided to have an early lunch break.

Then we had Professor Monica Grady (pictured left) of the Open University, with a talk entitled 'Life on Mars - if not, why not'. Monica, it turns out was the author of part of Book 8 from the OU Science Foundation course S104, that I successfully completed last year! So this talk was a good recap on what I'd learnt

The next speaker, Professor John Zarnecki (right) proved a wonderfully engaging bloke. He ran through his whole working life in space exploration, having been associated with many of the major planetary exploration missions over the last few decades including the Cassini Huygens mission that studied the surface of Titan. Best of all was his hilarious account of his desperate and sadly for him unsuccessful attempts to get into space himself on the various European Space Agency missions - proudly displaying his rejection letter from ESA! Great stuff!

The next guy was very much the 'Main Event' and needed no introduction. Professor Iain Stewart (pictured below) of Plymouth University and inspiring presenter of 'Earth:The Power of the Planet' and several other superb TV series in recent years proved to be even better in the flesh as it were, than he is on the telly. After some initial 'ribbing' from the compere for his NOT having done any OU courses, he went on to give a superb talk, loosely based on his most recent TV series 'How Earth Made Us'. What shone out like a beacon, was his near encyclopaedic knowledge of geologists of the past such as James Hutton. His delivery was slick, confident and utterly absorbing. His students at Plymouth Uni must have a ball, that's all I can say!

Follow that! Well for some obscure reason, someone thought it a good idea to have 'a word from one the sponsors'. In this case it was a guy from Thermo Fisher Scientific, suppliers of scientific instruments. It wasn't a sales pitch we were told, so that begs the question why? No idea myself! Odd choice!

Anyway, to wrap up the day we had Dr David Rothery (pictured left) of the OU, who related some hilarious anecdotes regarding his work as the media contact at the OU throughout the recent 'ash cloud crisis' during the Eyjafjallojokull eruption earlier this year. This guy was a hoot, and definitely didn't take himself too seriously! Rather than recount his stories, just go to You Tube and enter his name and look at the films of his media interviews with Sky TV and others. I particular, look out for the 'amazing disappearing car' in a Sky TV interview and the regular appearances of his little box of volcanic ash! Brilliant!

So a good day was had by all I think and highlighted the need to restore Open University Open Days which were a regular thing in days past I believe. Can't think why they were stopped.

Cheers for now,

Monday, 13 September 2010

Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons

Most people like to take a good book to read on holiday with them and I'm no different. Well, maybe a little. . .
Non-fiction doesn't do much for me these days, though I did get through the Da Vinci Code with moderate pleasure a while ago. This year, before leaving for a week in Lincolnshire, I thought it was about time I got hold of a copy of John Wesley Powell's epic record of his Exploration of the Colorado River and it's Canyons, in 1869.

Good ol' eBay eh? There I found a copy on offer at a 'Buy it Now' price of an almost embarrassing £2.47. And that was with free postage! How do they make it pay, I wonder? Anyway, the book soon arrived and was duly opened, shortly after arrival at our holiday cottage in Lincolnshire.

And what a cracking read it turned out to be. Written several years after the event in 1869, Powell's writing style was surprisingly easy to get into. Written as a daily journal he never intended to publish the details in book form but was eventually persuaded to after numerous requests. A huge number of superb sketches of the myriad of geological wonders they encountered are included throughout the account, though it is not clear who drew many of them.

He starts with a general overview of the area to be explored, looking at the valley of the Colorado; the regions mesas and buttes; its mountains and plateaus; and its cliffs and terraces. As you may know, I'm a great believer in making geology understandable to the interested layman in the way Wayne Ranney writes for example. John Wesley Powell seems of like mind too, as is shown in this explanation of the arrangement of four lines of cliffs that extend from east to west across the region:

Place a book before you on a table with its front edge toward you, rest another book on the back of this, place a third on the back of the second and in like manner a fourth on the third. Now the leaves of the book dip from you and the cut edges stand in tiny escarpments facing you. So the rock-formed leaves of these books of geology have the escarpment edges turned southward while each book itself dips northward and the crest of each plateau book is the summit of a line of cliffs.

Go on, try it! Then turn to page 90 of the book and look at the 'Section and birds eye view" I love the explanation and the simple practical exercise. Brilliant!

Chapter 5 sees the start of the record of the expedition. What follows is a truly absorbing account of the triumphs and disasters as they progressed. What really pours out of the pages of this account is Powell's passion for geology and his love of the entire region. Despite the battering he and his fellow explorers endured at times and the hardships that they experienced, his determination to succeed never wavered. Clearly some of his party did not share his belief that they could succeed in completing the journey and three made the decision to leave and 'take their chances'. An unwise move as it turned out as they were to perish at the hands of hostile Indians. Amazingly, Powell was to meet the killers of his colleagues a year or so later in his follow up expedition to the Uinta region and appears not to condemn them for their actions. 

I would recommend having a good map of the american south-west or better still, Wayne Ranney's book 'Carving Grand Canyon' at your side when reading this book in order to better track Major Powell' progress. Not all of the names that Powell gave to the multitude of features he encountered have been adopted in the long term, but most certainly have.

I will leave you with John Wesley Powell's closing remarks as he reflected on the experience:-

You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths. It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, by a years toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise.


Thursday, 29 July 2010

Welcome to the Anthropocene!

My first copy of the Open University's 'Geological Society Journal' hopped through the letter box a few days ago and one paper stood out from the others mainly because of it's authors. Dr Mark Williams and Dr Jan Zalasiewicz from Leicester University are two people I met at last years open day at the university and Jan is the author of a splendid book called 'Earth after Us' that I featured in a blog last year (click here to read). The title of the paper is "Enter the Anthropocene: an Epoch of time characterised by humans".

I've often speculated about the likely legacy we humans will leave for future occupiers of planet earth and whether there will be anything left worth occupying millions of years from now. I have always, perhaps a tad naively, believed that maybe man isn't quite as stupid as I fear and will drag the planet back 'from the brink' eventually. But will we? It seems that many believe the earth's failsafe feedback mechanisms could, quite soon be pushed beyond the point of no return, ultimately leading to the destruction of all life on planet earth, leaving nowt but a seemingly dead mass like Mars! James Lovelock, in his book 'Revenge of Gaia' I think touches on this very possibility if I remember correctly.

Anyway, Zalsiewicz and Wiliams' paper looks at the degree of environmental change brought about by man's activites, takes the idea first proposed by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Paul Crutzen and suggests ideas for formalising a specific epoch of geological time to cover the period of human influence on earth.

But how does one classify it? When did this epoch start? Is there a specific event that says before this event is the holocene and after it is the anthropocene? Well, there are a number of factors that might just leave a signature for future visiting geologists from afar to read. Firstly, the extinction of the large animals or 'megafauna' seemed to coincide with the rise of the human being, e.g the mammoths. However, it is difficult to be specific about the date as they died out in the americas 13,000 years ago, but died out 50,000 years ago in Australia. Some 'megafauna' survive today, e.g. elephants and rhino, but are unlikely to be around for too much longer. So maybe the Anthropocene requires a better means of classification?

The introduction of agriculture may provide a more specific date in order to gauge the start of this new epoch. WThe onset of agricultural practices brought widespread tree felling and planting of food crops which will have completely changed the composition of pollen grain accumulations in sediments worldwide, leaving a clear signature in the future rock record. This process will also have altered the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and this too will be detectable by the future geologist.

Another potential means of dating the onset of the anthropocene could be in reading the signs of mans activities. No previous lifeform on earth has physically changed the outward structure of earth quite like man. Just how detectable the remains of man's handywork will be is difficult to gauge. Huge ancient cities vacated just a thousand years ago are now merely dust and rubble. But surely the vast quantities of brick, steel and concrete that make up our twenty-first century megacities will leave plenty of clues and a good idea of just when man was at his creative (or destructive, depending on your outlook) peak? As for how long the anthropocene will last is also difficult to estimate, but the pessimistic amongst us might suggest the width of this potential epoch might not occupy too much paper on the future geologist's stratigraphic column! 

The slightly depressing thing that came to my thoughts when reading this piece was that we humans and our relatives have only been around for a few hundred thousand years and are already making a good job of orchestrating our own demise. Yet the good ol' dinosaurs were the dominant vertebrate from the Triassic through to the end of the Cretaceous! That's a whopping 160 million years!?! That makes man's tenure seen pretty short term. And we like to think of ourselves as intelligent? Sorry, but making such a 'pig's ear' of everything in such a short (geologically speaking) space of time makes us look pretty dumb! That said, rapid increase followed by sudden extinction is not at all unusual. Let's hope we can turn things around before its too late.

Cheers for now!


Monday, 12 July 2010

Blasphemy, blasphemy!

I am a regular follower of another geological blog called 'Geotripper' by a guy called Garry Hayes, a teacher of geology at Modesto Junior College in the USA and enjoy dipping into his prolific, enlightening and entertaining 'geoblogs'.

But a recent blog rather took me by surprise. Entitled "Ten Overrated Places to See Before You Die...Part Two" , imagine my shock on finding that the subject of this award, was Grand Canyon South Rim!!!

What? Are you mad? Before I comment further, take a look at his post here.

Grand Canyon at dawn from Bright Angel Lodges.
Overrated? I really don't think so!
(Photo by Alyn)

What Garry is referring to is 'the South Rim experience' and to a degree he is right. With around 277 miles of canyon to play with, tourist access is limited to only a few select places. As a visitor myself in 2008, I was surprised and I must say relieved to find that there is little in the way of development of Grand Canyon. As I understand it there are the lodges and apartments at Grand Canyon Village, a smaller development on the North Rim and also Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. Other than a few camp sites, that is about it and thank heavens for that say I. Can you imagine the horror of a multitude of 'Grand Canyon Skywalks' or similar crass developments littering this beautiful place?

So, Grand Canyon National Park saw fit to channel the tourist invasion into this one place. But is the whole South Rim experience spoiled as a result? Well, I can only relate my own experience. As a citizen of the UK, the trip over to Arizona constituted the 'trip of a lifetime' and yes, was on my list of those essential "places to visit before you die". What I wanted was a way for my family and my mother-in-law to stay as close to the Canyon as possible and at the very least get a feel for this wonderous place.

From L-R: Diane, Amy, Me, Ruth and Anna-Ruth outside our Bright Angel Lodge
(Photo by Alyn)

Well, we stayed in the magnificent Bright Angel Lodges, literally only yards from the Canyon edge.  And just a short walk away is the Bright Angel Restaurant where the most magnificent breakfast in the world awaits! One simply cannot 'overrate' their breakfast potatoes, sourdough toast and endless coffee, no Sir!
But I do understand where Garry is coming from. Sure, hoards of camcorder wielding folks hop off the bus in their droves, gaze over the canyon edge, pose for the obligatory photo with canyon backdrop, say "Gee, isn't it lovely" and then hop back on the bus and head for Vegas. For many, that is it. An afternoon's hop along the South Rim viewpoints,  a photo at each and prescious little else.

Evening bus tour of the South Rim viewpoints
(Photo by Alyn)

But for so many more, a visit to the South Rim of Grand Canyon is just the start of a whole lot more. As Gary points out, it is impossible to grasp the sheer magnitude of Grand Canyon just by standing at the edge and looking over. When you look at just the Kaibab Limestone layer for example and realise that this layer alone is about 300 feet thick, you may then get an appreciation of the scale a little. So I am left with a longing to revisit and take a hike through at least a part of it. One day my friends, one day . . . 

For countless others, they do just that. Hikes, canyon raft trips, camping etc, etc. So in my view, the Grand Canyon South Rim experience can serve as an introduction to the Grand Canyon. For some it is nothing but a single day out. But for many others though it can be a life changing experience and prove to be the start of something special, be it an appreciation of geology or even the feeling of being a little closer to God.

Overrated? Never!

Cheers for now!

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Problem solved - I think!?!

Well, things seem to be working again!

As is often the way with I.T. the Blogger editor just seems to be workin again, though it was probably/possibly a 'cookie' issue or maybe some sort of conflict with a recently upgraded firewall and virus checker. At least they are two of the things I randomly tried and lo and behold, we're back on track! Hoorah!

So expect a proper blog in a day or two!

Back soon!


Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Blogging problems - Any ideas?


I know it has been a while, but I'm afraid I'm having a few problems editing posts and even adding any new ones. I will try to explain in the hope that if anyone has experienced similar problems they can maybe offer some advice?

About a month ago, when attempting to access the blog post editor all I would get is the rotating clock thingy in the editing area and nothing else happened. At no time does the editor fully load allowing me to add a post and this has continued for over a month now!?!

Neither can I access and edit any previous blogs in any way. These problems are occurring on my laptop at home via a wireless router. I don't have any such problems when accessing my blog on my computer at work, but that's non the ideal place to be doing my blogging - not if I want to remain employed, that is! So presumably, its a problem with my wireless network? I'm a bit of an I.T. technophobe, so haven't a clue where to go to solve this mini crisis.

I haven't tried accessing the blog directly on my home computer, which I am presuming will experience the same problems, but maybe not?
Any suggestions anyone? 'Blogger' doesn't seem to offer much help and I'm getting frustrated!!!!
Drop me a line if you can help in any way!


Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A day at Tideswell, Derbyshire, with the OU Geological Society

Studying geology isn't just about reading books. To really get to grips with the subject you simply have to get out in the open air. With this in mind I recently joined the East Midlands branch of the Open University Geological Society, with the aim of getting a bit of practical geology experience, before I dive head first into the level 2 geology couse with the university.

So, the ‘Basic Geology Day’ at Tideswell, Derbyshire (click here for a map of the area) sounded like the perfect introduction for a relative beginner like me. It was designed to give people like me a gentle introduction to sedimentary and igneous rocks. S276, the geology course is all part of my master plan to get a geology based degree sometime before senility creeps in, but is not likely to figure until next year. The first question was, would I be out of my depth? Would an unintensional 'faux pas' see me ridiculed in such educated company? Not a bit of it! I was made to feel welcome right from the off and able to ask any question I felt necessary.

A group of eight gathered in the car park at the old railway station at Millers Dale which comprised four committee members and four ‘newbies’ of varying levels of geological experience. Not only was this my first geology field trip, but it was also the first outing for my brand new walking boots bought specially for this very day - quite obvious to all probably as said boots were quite unfeasibly shiny!

Anyway, after brief introductions, it was off on a short walk to the first stop – a limestone quarry, where Don Cameron, the group leader, described the ‘Derbyshire Dome’. Around 300 million years ago, the sea floor was lifted and a gentle anticline formed across what is now the Peak District, giving the area the characteristic 'dome' shape, hence the name. Folding of the rocks caused cracks (faults) to appear, particularly so within the limestone.

From the top down, the sequence of rocks present are coal measures; millstone grit; shale and limestone. The coal measures and millstone grit were then subject to erosion and at the most exposed upper part of the dome the gritstone was completely removed thus exposing the limestone in the centre of the Peak District.

A former Limestone quarry, Millers Dale Derbyshire.

Don suggested we all take a look at some of the rocks lying around the base of the quarry and seen in the foreground of the above photo. I was of course aware of the fossil content of limestone but not how numerous they can be. The rock that I examined was packed with vast numbers of brachiopods, rugose corals and crinoid stem fragments of varying sizes.

Limestone containing fossil coral (upper centre)
I won’t give you a detailed description of the geology of the day for fear of getting something hopelessly wrong and embarrassing myself, but what this day emphasised for me was that it doesn’t matter how much studying and reading you do at home or in a college, nothing quite matches seeing things out there in the great outdoors. Even something as straight forward as a fault or an unconformity means so much more when you see it with your own eyes and in three dimensions.

A fault line in the limestone caused during the formation of the anticline.
The day finished off with a quick drive up the road to take a look at a doloritic intrusion at Tideswell Dale Quarry, which was well worth the extra short drive. Here, hot liquid rock deep within the earth slowly cooled allowing fairly large crystals to develope forming the dark rock characteristic of dolerite.

Exposure of a dolerite intrusion, Tideswell Dale Quarry, Derbyshire.

Close up of the dolerite intrusion, Tideswell Dale Quarry, Derbyshire.

Close up of a recent rock fall at the exposure.
Some rocks (lower centre) exhibit severe weathering
and a redish colouration due to their iron content.

View towards Froggatt Edge (I think) which denotes the edge of the Millstone Grit.
To the left of the peak, lies shale and limestone.

So all in all, a fascinating intro to geology and the OU Geological Society. Sadly, I can’t make the next trip to The Roaches this Saturday (due to 50th birthday celebrations!), but I will definitely make the (for me) short journey to Bradgate Park in June to find out more about the oldest rocks in England.

Me and my boots can't wait!

Cheers, Alyn

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Next up it's Darwin and Evolution

If only life wasn't so hectic and busy! If only I had the time to do what I REALLY want to do, namely study geology full time and blog away to my hearts content. Alas 'life' gets in the way so often and with my review of my fossil course only part done, I now have the course material for my next course in front of me. No time then, for that journey through time I'd hoped to do through the fossil record. Another time perhaps? I should be touching on it anyway, as I progress through the next endeavour.

For the next ten weeks or so, I will be immersed in everything 'Darwin' and 'Natural Selection'! On May 15th, S170 - Darwin and Evolution commences and it looks like it will be another fascinating course.

So many things about evolution and the fossil record puzzle me. For example, if evolution takes place slowly, there must have been innumerable transitional forms of all creatures, which logically should be represented in the fossil record. But, by and large this seems not to be the case. A first dip into the course book shows that Darwin believed the answer simply lies in the imperfections of the fossil record. The introduction hints at evidence for the important transitions in the history of life on earth, so I'm looking forward to finding out more and maybe dispelling a few myths. 

The course book we have been supplied with is called '99% Ape - How Evolution Adds Up', and there is also a DVD of programmes to watch. Strangely there is an experiment/project for us to undertake that involves collecting snails from the garden which is intriguing! Some past students have apparently been unable to take part due to a lack of said creatures, but there will be no such problems for me I don't think - we're over-run with the darn critters here in the East Midlands!

Unlike the previous fossil course which was assessed by a single computer marked assignment, this one will involve actually writing stuff and answering questions to be marked by a human! I much prefer that to be honest. You can't beat the personal interaction with a tutor so I'm looking forward to 'kick off' in 10 days time!

This  next Sunday, 9th May I am going on my very first geology field trip with the Open University Geological Society - an 'Introduction to Geology Day' at Tideswell in Derbyshire, which sounds like the perfect way to start. We'll be looking at sedimentary and igneous rocks and I'm really looking forward to meeting new people and 'learning by doing' in the great outdoors. This will also be the debut for my brand new walking boots too! I'll let you know how it went next week!

Cheers for now!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Fossils and the History of Life : Part Three

Fossils and the History of Life: Part Three

Okay, I’d better crack on with my round up of S193, Fossils and the History of Life’.

Part Three: Common Phyla in the fossil record

As I mentioned last time, the animal kindom is split into groups called phyla. These are represented in the fossil record and the following is a brief summary of the main points concerning the most important animal phyla represented:-
• Sponges
• Cambrian to Recent
• Mainly marine though some freshwater
• Simple multicellular organisms – no nervous system
• Filter feeders
• Locally abundant fossils especially in Cretaceous rocks
• Found in flint nodules


Above: Coral fossil, Favosites turbinatus (Devonian)

• Corals
• Late Precambrian (Ediacaran) to Recent
• Almost entirely marine
• Colonial or solitary
• 3 groups: 1) rugose (solitary or colonial) Ordovician to Permian; 2) tabulate (colonial) Ordovician to Permian; 3) scleractinian (solitary and colonial) Triassic to Recent.
• Have central mouth and stinging tentacles
Note that Sea anemones and jellyfish are also cnidarians, but being soft bodied are rarely found in the fossil record.

• Also known as ‘Moss animals’.
• Ordovician to Recent
• Normally marine but also freshwater (uncommon)
• Very small colonial creatures living in groups of several to thousands of individuals
• Feed through tentacles
• Fossils can resemble corals and graptolites (see later)

• Cambrian to Recent
• Entirely marine and benthic (sea floor dwelling)
• Consist of 2 parts or valves and shells made up of calcium carbonate mainly though some of calcium phosphate.
• Filter feeders
• Are common fossil in Palaeozoic limestones and shales.

• Cambrian to Recent
• Mainly marine.
• Very diverse phylum and most abundant large invertebrates in the fossil record.
• Phylum includes: bivalves; gastropods and cephalopods
Brachiopods seem rather similar to bivalves in many ways, but differ in that their ‘plane of symmetry’ passes through both valves rather than between them. Invariably, one valve is larger than the other in a brachiopod hence the common name of ‘lamp shells’.

Gastropods are aquatic, living in shallow marine and freshwater environments.

Cephalopods are entirely marine; have chambered shells and include ammonites, belemnites and nautiloids.


Above: Echinoderm fossil, Orophocrinus stelliformis (Lower Mississippian - 345ma)

• Cambrian to Recent
• Entirely marine are benthic, sessile (fixed to rocks) or vagrant (move around sea floor).
• Feed, respire and move using extendible tentacles called ‘tube feet’.
• Echinoids commonly has 5 rayed arrangement of plates and tube feet.• The phylum includes sea urchins, starfish (asteroids) and brittle stars (ophiuroids) and sea lillies (crinoids, see below).

Above: Crinoid fossil, Macrocrinus mundulus (Lower Mississippian - 345 ma)

• Cambrian to Recent
• The largest animal phylum
• Found in land and water habitats.
• Includes: crustaceans, insects, spiders, and now extinct groups such as trilobites
• Have hard outer segmented exoskeleton which is periodically shed to allow growth
Above: Trilobite fossil, Greenops boothi (Middle Devonian)

• Exoskeleton comprises chitin and possibly strengthened by calcium carbonate or phosphate.

• Cambrian to Recent
• The most important group of hemichordates are the extinct and entirely marine graptolites. These are confined to the palaeozoic era and are therefore an important zone fossil. (see later) These look strangely like ‘saw blades’ where the ‘teeth’ are actually small recesses that house individuals that make up a colony.


•  Cambrian to Recent
•  Possess a notochord through the length of the body
• Include the 5 classes of vertebrates i.e. fish; amphibians; reptiles; mammals and birds.

Above: Dinosaur fossil, a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, (Cretaceous) located at the Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford Illinois, USA.

• Extinct groups include the land dwelling dinosaurs (see above); marine ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs; and the flying pterosaurs.
• Vertebrate fossils are rare and usually comprise only fragments.

So that's a brief and way too rapid round up of the common phyla in the fossil record. The phylum 'Chordata' itself could warrant an entire blog on its own - as indeed any of them could. But I'll maybe do that at a later date if time permits. Next time I wil start that journey through time, starting with a look at the mysterious Ediacaran fossils, examples of which were found close to my hoome in the East Midlands, at Bradgate Park. Then I'll get down to the nitty-gritty of the 'Cambrian Explosion'.

All photographs included above were courtesy of 'The Virtual Fossil Museum' web site. This is an excellent resource, providing photographic galleries of the fossil groups and a lot of other information besides. For a closer look click here.

Cheers for now,