Vol 10, No. 3 [July-September 2012]

Tales set in stone

12 UNESCO to host scientific advisory board to UN
13 A fresh start for demobilized Rwandan soldiers
13 Germany to host IPBES Secretariat
14 ICTP aids in Higgs boson discovery
14 Towards an action plan for Andes
15 Meet Unescoceratopsi
15 Africa lucid as to path ahead
16 Experts from 40 countries trained in STI indicators
16 Titanic's grave now protected by UNESCO
17 Bioethics urgently needs regulating in Arab world

18 Ruth Arnon on the challenges facing Israeli science

21 Weathering uncertainty in the Arctic
24 China's palaeo-treasure trove

28 Agenda
28 New Releases

Direct link A World of Science Vol 10 N°3 (PDF document)
See also archives for A World of Science.


Time travel

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is utility. As Iain Stewart from Plymouth University (UK) observed last February at the 40th anniversary of the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) at UNESCO in Paris, show a piece of coal to an industrialist and they will see a source of fuel; show it to an ecologist and they will see a source of carbon emissions; show it to a geologist and they will see a climate which existed more than 300 million years ago (Ma).

Geoscientists help us to travel through time. The IGCP was founded in 1972 to confirm the existence of Gondwana, one of two megacontinents with Laurasia which formed about 145 Ma, by correlating the geology of modern continents. As time went by and supporting evidence for Gondwana became overwhelming, IGCP research teams turned to questions of special societal relevance. New disciplines emerged like archaeoseismology, which draws on both the geological and archaeological record to identify past earthquakes. One IGCP project in 2000 was even at the origin of a new field: medical geology, the science dealing with the impact of our natural environment on human and animal health. Arsenic, for example, is a natural chemical which poisons millions of people worldwide who absorb it unwittingly through groundwater.

Given the concern over climate change and the looming shortage of fossil fuels and uranium which overshadows our industrial future, geoscientists are focusing more on renewable energy these days. Kenyan geoscientists, for instance, are currently employed on a government project to develop geothermal energy in the Great Rift Valley.

As the third Earth Summit (Rio+20) in June has just demonstrated, civil society and the private sector have become central players in sustainable development. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon announced in Rio that more than 50 governments had launched new energy strategies but also that private investors had pledged more than US$50 billion towards the goal of doubling the share of global renewable energy and improvements in energy efficiency by 2030.

Understanding natural disasters is another critical area for sustainable development in which the IGCP can make a difference. A consensus rapidly emerged in February of the need for IGCP projects to monitor seismic activity in subduction zones like that responsible for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year.

One of the world’s most active subduction zones is located in the Mediterranean Sea, south of the island of Crete. Overleaf, we follow the fortunes of Homo sapiens sapiens around the Black and Mediterranean Seas through 30 000 years of a tumultuous history marked by sporadic earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, as well as more insidious hazards tied to a changing climate, such as flooding from glacier melt, gradual sea-level rise or prolonged drought. Through these palaeostudies, the IGCP is helping us to understand how human societies and ecosystems coped with a changing environment in the past and why some civilizations failed. There are obvious lessons to be learned for contemporary societies.

Gretchen Kalonji
Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences

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