Sleeping on my living room floor in the nights following the Christchurch 2011 earthquake (the collapsed chimney making the bedrooms out of bounds ), I vividly recall listening to the booming and grinding of geology below. I absorbed every minute of it in equal measures of fear and awe. It is those very deep earthquake processes that both fascinate Steve, and keep him in his day job as a Geology Department Lecturer.
So when the opportunity came for Steve to move to tectonically active NZ from the more geologically ‘genteel’ United Kingdom, it would have been rude for him to say no. Now much of his field research is associated with an ancient fault system that spans a large part of the country and which caused uplift of the characteristic red rocks of the Dun Mountain Ophiolite Belt. Prior to arriving here, he was already familiar with the Ophiolite Belt as it’s famous in geology textbooks round the world. So Steve is understandably chuffed to be contributing to knowledge of how the Belt was uplifted more than 50km to the surface from the mantle.
Rocks carry their own story including a heap of information on their cumulative history. Through studying the preserved microstructures in rocks resulting from tectonic grinding processes, much can be revealed about the controls that make rock creep slowly or move quickly. An Italian state-of-the-art earthquake simulator called SHIVA (which incidentally Steve was involved in developing) is also used for laboratory testing. Weighing in at a robust four tonnes, SHIVA simulates the extreme deformation conditions typical of earthquakes such as high pressure and velocity, and includes the movement and even melting of rocks.
A childhood love of the mountains and glaciers initially led Steve on his geology journey. And now when he is out in the mountains, his greater understanding of the underlying processes allows a different perspective on the dynamism of nature that surrounds us.
Imagine a block of ice spanning the distance from Bluff to Taupo. Now imagine that block of ice moving several metres per day. Not exactly breaking speed records I know, but for such a huge chunk of ice that’s pretty damn impressive. This is the vast white moving world of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf.
The surprising thing is minimal data on the Ice Shelf exists. As Christian puts it, “there are probably better maps of the moon, or even Pluto”. But this is about to change. Christian and his geology team, alongside two other groups, are shortly heading south to begin building a picture of the ice and its environment, and how it’s changed over time. Their journey begins with a 350km overland adventure from Scott Base to a point marked with a big black X on the map (from what I could tell it’s basically in the middle of nowhere).
As Science Logistics manager for the Ross Ice Shelf Programme, he is tasked with a mind-boggling level of gear and people organisation. A new custom-built addition to this expedition, and weighing in excess of a hearty 250kg, is Thumper. Thumper’s task is to (funnily enough) thump away on the ice and generate sound waves recorded on 96 geophones. Part of what Christian’s team are piecing together is the natural behaviour of the ice shelf in an unmodified condition, and also gather information about the physical and oceanic factors controlling its behaviour. It appears the ice shelf has been stable, but is unlikely to stay that way.
Of course with all that organisation almost done, he’s pretty keen to board the flight on Nov 6th on his third trip to the Ice. “And the great thing about Antarctica is it’s a level playing field. Everyone has to look after each other, and because of that it feels like the ultimate equal opportunity workplace”.
Endless childhood rock collections used to drive Lauren’s mum round the bend. But the geology connection wasn’t made until the very first lesson of a fill-in geology paper she took at 17. Lauren walked out of that lesson with her future sorted.
And just four years ago Lauren arrived in NZ from England to start her PhD. “NZ is such an interesting place for geologists, and because it’s so young you can see geology in action. Processes happening on the Alpine Fault now have analogies to those in the Himalayas dating back hundreds of millions of years. My most prized possession is a hand sample of a rock from NZ’s Alpine Fault where you can see the line dividing the two tectonic plates. It’s a mere 5 million years old, which is just a baby in geological time”.
Macraes gold mine in Central Otago has been Lauren’s home away from home over the course of her research on the tungsten ore mineral called scheelite. The mine’s current method to extract gold means the tungsten is thrown out in the process, which seems a complete waste when it is widely used in applications ranging from light bulb filaments to steel alloy in heavy machinery.
So Lauren has been beavering away analysing the existence of tungsten from the microscopic to macro levels, determining the relationship between gold and tungsten, and devising a technique where the two can be economically extracted together. Much of her time has been looking at microscopic cross-sections which radiate a kaleidoscope of colours, patterns and shapes, and can tell her things like the temperature and date when the mineral was formed (just don’t ask me how).
“When I look down microscope my heart sings. It’s partly the colours, but it’s also all the information I can just tell from looking at it which is the amazing bit. As long as you give me a rock I will never be bored – I’ll be occupied for hours”.