The problem of geovandalism

You might have noticed that pretty as my komatiite deskcrop is, when I wanted to show the most impressive examples of spinifex textures, such as the variations in crystal size within a lava flow, I had to resort to field photos. In fact, whereas those photos come from a lovely fresh exposure in a stream bed, the hand sample on my desk comes from a nearby field, where the outcrop was rather badly weathered and horrible. This was deliberate: the small exposure in the stream is one of the best examples of spinifex textures found in the entire Barberton Greenstone Belt, and much of its value comes from being able to study the relationships within and between the different lava flows (in fact, we were visiting the locality with 60-odd students in tow for precisely this purpose). Hacking off a chunk simply to beautify my desk would therefore be rather irresponsible.

However, it seems that not everyone in South Africa shares these sensibilities. The people I was visiting Barberton with were rather upset to discover that in the year since their last visit to this locality, the most spectacular example of a spinifex-bearing lava flow had been hacked away from the outcrop, leaving nothing but an ugly scar. Many of the outcrops in the stream bed also bore the scars of a palaeomagnetic drill, which had been inflicted a few years previously. Indeed, ‘palaeomagnetist’ is a bit of a dirty word in South Africa at the moment: as soon as any geologist that I’ve talked with in the last few months has found out that I’m a palaeomagician, I’ve been subjected to a rant about the rather unsightly aftermath of a drilling assault on the komatiite type locality on the Komati River, by somebody who shall remain nameless (for more on the aftermath of this and other recent incidents, read this discussion in the Geological Society of South Africa Bulletin).
Geologists now have access to a wide array of fancy analytical techniques which provide a wealth of information about the formation and subsequent thermal, chemical and tectonic evolution of a rock. Unfortunately, many of these techniques are destructive, requiring that samples be removed to a lab and zapped, cooked or crushed into oblivion. Even more unfortunately, it is also the really rare and special rocks, the formations that formed billions of years ago, or under conditions rarely seen on the Earth’s surface, which are the most tempting targets for our magnetometers and mass spectrometers, because of their potential to offer fundamental insights into the way our planet works.
There are clearly trade-offs involved here: you don’t want to completely shut off valuable avenues of research by preventing any sampling of geologically interesting localities, but you also don’t want to cheat current and future geologists out of seeing these things in their original context, which is still the heart and soul of learning and doing good geology. Many times, these conflicts can be minimised by simply putting in that little bit of extra effort: rather than just hacking away at the outcrop which everyone stops to look at on field trips, take the time to explore around the river bend, or the in the surrounding undergrowth, to see if you can find what you need there. This seems to be the principal complaint in these South African cases: people weren’t willing to go that extra yard to minimise the impact that their research had on everyone else.
There are obviously times when even if the outcrop that you are studying is of incalculable geological value, the potential scientific payoff from sampling a bit of it for laboratory analysis justifies sullying it with the hammer or drill. But it’s a fine line to navigate, and perhaps it shouldn’t be up to any one geologist to make that judgement on behalf of the rest of us – as the South African experience seems to show, the actions of just a few selfish people can play havoc with a country’s geological heritage. But who should decide? And how should it be decided? Perhaps you have some thoughts.

Categories: geology

Comments (11)

  1. Lab Lemming says:

    Restricting the discussion of geovandalism to researchers misses the much larger issues of scalpers and collectors. The Ediacaran fauna, which you described here have been vandalized to the point where the South Australia state government is looking at increasing legislative protection for rare fossils.

  2. BrianR says:

    “…people weren’t willing to go that extra yard to minimise the impact that their research had on everyone else.”
    Essentially…some researchers are lazy. I usually start frowning when I think about those who drive up to roadcuts, sample them, and then go home to put them in a fancy black box.

  3. Suvrat Kher says:

    I did a lot of field work in the southern Appalachians on the Middle Ordovician and often road cuts were the only accessible outcrop. The rest of the countryside was either private property where you could not go without permission and a lot of property owners refused. The other problem was the thick soil cover, which meant strata really could be studied in context.
    Regarding special outcrops, unfortunately non-invasive methods in geology can only take you so far! Maybe local geological societies along with state and federal geologic organizations can designate some special outcrops and earmark them for protection from sampling, giving them “heritage status”. For example Gilbert hill in Mumbai (Bombay) used to be a quarry but has been protected since it shows excellent columnar basalt structures (off course now its surrounded by slums, so nobody goes there t study the structures! )Over here in Pune , India, the local Rotary club recently “adopted” a portion of outcrop of basalt since it showed great examples of ropy lava. But this was in the middle of the city. It will be difficult to implement and enforce something like this in open countryside where fieldwork is actually carried out.

  4. Andrew says:

    It takes government action or alert private ownership to preserve geoheritage sites. For the first, see the Burgess Shale in Canada, which is off-limits to all but researchers, or the Ring Mountain Preserve near San Francisco where high-PT blueschists are protected. For the second, my example is the Ward Creek blueschist locality near Cazadero, California, which is privately owned and has a no-hammers rule for all visitors.
    I think a good model is that of the caving community, which safeguards speleological treasures by righteous self-monitoring.

  5. divalent says:

    Yeah, and you don’t want to piss of the folks at PETR (People for the Ethical Treatment of Rocks).

  6. Chris Rowan says:

    Restricting the discussion of geovandalism to researchers misses the much larger issues of scalpers and collectors.
    True, but of all people, geologists should know better – they know exactly what they’re destroying. We need to get our own house in order if we want to be taken seriously on the issue of preserving geoheritage.

  7. Ragan says:

    Is Burgess really off limits? What a bummer. I wanted to check it out some year!

  8. dmonte says:

    We had an excellent new road cut exposing a series of small normal faults with limited offset. Beds could be matched up on either side of each fault with a little bit of effort. It was a great undergraduate structural teaching stop. However someone has since come with spray paint and marked the matched beds, completely hindering all future undergraduate exercises. I have no idea why this was done …. maybe for a photo. But it ruined an excellent road cut.
    I’ve done much field mapping of Cambrian through Devonian units in the Central Appalachians and encountered similar exposure problems as Suvrat mentioned, limited access and thick soil. I don’t tell people where the good exposures are unless I feel that they can be trusted. I have been on many field trips where a select group of geologists will immediately go to the exposure and begin whacking with their hammers for their own piece of material. There is always float around that can be used for fresh piece.

  9. Steve-O says:

    >see the Burgess Shale in Canada, which is off-limits to all
    >but researchers
    >or the Ring Mountain Preserve near San Francisco
    >where high-PT blueschists are protected.
    Rather than seeing these as examples of the benefits of preservation, I see them as examples where regulatory bodies have gone way too far in restricting access.
    I love taking students to Ring Mountain, for example, but the exposures there are not great. Student could get so much more out of the site if the authorities were to permit me to “liberate” some of the outcrops from their plant/lichen/weathering cover using a sledgehammer. The federales don’t seem to have a problem allowing real estate developers to hack into Ring Mtn, however; the type locality for lawsonite on Ring Mtn was destroyed a few years back to make way for tacky condos.
    As for the Burgess Shale, I think the attitude of the Canadian authorities and the UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1981 makes research far too restrictive and difficult. Remember that until the Whittington excavations of 1967, even Canada did possess a major collection. Now, if you yearn to make new discoveries in the Burgess Shale, unless you were lucky enough to be born with the name Charles Walcott or Simon Conway Morris, you’re simply out of luck.

  10. Bob O'H says:

    Your troubles are similar to some of those discussed in ecology and conservation. Collectors have sent several species extinct, going out to shoot the last few individuals before the rest disappear. Nowadays we have righteous self-monitoring (or self-righteous self-monitoring?), and it’s part of the culture. Of course, it helps that a lot of people who enter ecology are interested in conservation in the first place.
    Mind you, a few years ago there was a big entomolgy conference in Brasil. That was just asking for trouble…

  11. Andrew says:

    Your viewpoint is valid; that is to say, your frustration is quite understandable. There has to be a good balance between access and protection, recognizing that what looters miss, erosion will eventually destroy.
    BTW, I’ve looked for the lawsonite locality around Ring Mountain and figured it had been paved over. Can you name a place where I can go hammer out a piece for my collection?