State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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South Africa-Bound with Sand from Coney Island

Geologic maps show what rocks are exposed at the surface.
Geologic maps show what rocks are exposed at the surface.

I’m flying to Johannesburg on Friday in what will be my third expedition to South Africa. In the past I’ve traveled here to study the Bushveld Complex, a huge lava formation that provides over 70 percent of the world’s platinum as well as other valuable ores, such as vanadium and chromium, both used to make steel.

This year I’ll continue my fieldwork in the Bushveld but first we will provide a week of geology-education training to South African high school teachers from Pretoria and the surrounding areas. South Africa’s mines provide the single largest source of jobs in this country yet most South Africans know little about the earth processes that created its mineral wealth—its gold, diamonds, platinum and coal. Over five days, we will provide lectures and hands-on activities that the teachers can use in their classrooms. We hope to teach basic geologic concepts through the lens of how and where different ores form.

The workshops grew out of conversations that my Ph.D. advisor, Ed Mathez, and I had with our Bushveld hosts since my first visit in 2006. That year Ed and I brought many gifts for the local landowners who allowed us access to their farms so that we could chisel away chunks of rock on their property. These gifts were mainly hats, t-shirts, and children’s toys. But when we asked what they would like us to bring on future trips they overwhelmingly answered “education.”

Back in New York City, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), where Ed is a curator of the petrology collection, we worked with the education director, Maritza MacDonald, to plan the workshop we will hold in Pretoria next week–a collaboration between AMNH and the South African Agency for Science and Technology, funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The workshop has evolved substantially since then with help from three other New York City educators who will accompany us: Natasha Cooke-Nieves, Christopher Emdin, and Jay Holmes.

Right now we are busily boxing up our educational materials: books on coal and platinum, movies produced by the AMNH, maps, posters, and even a few New York City rocks—pieces of Manhattan schist and the Palisades Sill and even beach sand from Coney Island and Far Rockaway. We will use these samples to show the teachers how to make a “geological” map by collecting different rocks from nearby areas.

An aerial view of the same area.

For the second half of our trip, Ed and I will drive to the eastern-most part of the Bushveld Complex, approximately 2.5 hours away. We are investigating how this huge amount of magma rose from Earth’s mantle into the crust more than two billion years ago and how it cooled and solidified to become what it is today.

I’m preparing for this leg of the journey by studying geological maps of the area, like the one pictured above. Because the Bushveld is so old and has had so much time to erode away, we need precise geological maps to tell us where we might find the rocks at the surface today. The map above will tell us where we can find samples of the Bushveld Complex (the green) and also Bushveld-related lavas (the red, pink, and yellow). The white stickers on the map represent samples collected by others in the past. But I will tell you more about that in the coming posts.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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