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Rocktober: Earth Science Week 2020

October 11, 2020

Here we are in Rocktober, the second week of which is Earth Science Week around the world. It is sponsored by the American Geoscience Institute (AGI), an association of associations, including the Geological Society of America, the Mineralogical Society of America, and many others.

This year’s theme is Earth Materials in our Lives. As the ESW website states:

Earth Science Week 2020 will explore a host of related questions: As scientists, engineers, inventors and others use raw materials to design innovative technologies and goods to meet human needs, how do we evaluate costs and benefits of using Earth materials? How do we adopt policies and practices that allow us to take advantage of the unique properties of raw materials efficiently, generating value while minimizing negative impacts both locally and globally? How do we address the complex, interrelated issues like resource management, waste management, biodiversity, climate change, circular economies, life cycle analysis, and models of sustainability?

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Clason’s map of railroads and roads in the US, ca. 1900’s, about a century ago. ( This was state of the art transportation.

Scientific and technological literacy includes understanding where stuff comes from. Geologists are fond of saying that if you can’t grow it, you have to mine it. (And you may have to mine phosphorus before you can grow it.) Professor John Hughes noted in his talk at the Centennial Anniversary for the Mineralogical Society of America in 2019 that he came from Vermont to D.C., a trip of a few days or hours. A century before it would have been a much longer and more difficult trip. Check out this map from the Library of Congress of roads and railroads of 1919.

Professor Hughes noted that the advances in travel and lifestyle are all made possible by the success of resource extraction industries, mining and petroleum. I would like to add that the people who most enjoy the benefits of our technological lifestyle tend to be the most removed from the earth materials at the base of that economy.

For instance, Rare Earth Elements (REE). The REE are used in green technologies, smart phones, computers, semiconductors, magnets, and on and on. An electric guitar pickup with neodymium magnets is 2-6 times stronger than a regular pickup, meaning your heavy metal just got heavier. In 2017, the US produced no REE mining concentrates. Then, and now, the trade is dominated by China and the Bayan Obu deposit in Mongolia, a real oddball of a carbonatite ore body. That, my friends, is a genuine national security issue.

A twinned monazite crystal from the Geology Collection. It’s easy to find in hand sample because it is beer-bottle brown. Composition is roughly (Ca, Th, REE)PO4.

One source of REE is the mineral monazite. Rivers in the Kings Mountain area of North Carolina contain placer deposits of fairly high-grade monazite, examples of which we have in our Geology Collection. Here’s a hypothetical discussion question: How do we mine those placers, if they are needed for national security resources? How do we preserve clean water for the nearby cities? Clean water is one of North Carolina’s greatest natural resources. How do we restore the river valleys? Monazite also contains radioactive elements like thorium and uranium. What do we do with those leftovers? Geologists are involved at every stage: exploration, mining, separation, hydrology and remediation.

Now we’ve come full circle to this year’s Earth Science Week.

Kids eventually learn that milk comes from a very funny-looking part of a cow’s underside, not from a carton or jug. A single cell phone comes from many extractive industries worldwide, not from the store.  A scientifically and technologically literate society needs to understand that their “footprint” involves much more than the geochemical carbon cycle. You can download a flyer on the materials in a mobile device from the USGS.

In pursuit of scientific literacy, the Earth Science Week website provides resources for education, for teachers, and for students, and resources in Spanish. Each year I order the ESW Toolkit, full of resources about each year’s theme. It always has fun stuff in it.

But it isn’t a week devoted to mining. Each day of ESW has a different focus:

Sunday, October 11 is International Earthcache Day. This is a lot like a GPS scavenger hunt.

Monday, October 12- Minerals Day. For me, minerals are information. For other, beauty. This day is about both.

Tuesday, October 13- Earth Observation Day. This is the day for engaging students and teachers in remote sensing. It gives a more global vision to your science.

Tuesday is also No Child Left Inside Day. NCLI Day encourages students to go outside and research Earth science in the field. Get dirty, swing a hammer (safely) or do a field trip.

Wednesday, October 14- National Fossil Day. ‘Nuff said.

Thursday, October 15 Geoscience for Everyone Day. Geology has a diversity problem, and this is one day for addressing that issue.

Friday, October 16- Geologic Map Day. I quote the ESW site: Hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey, Association of American State Geologists, National Park Service, Geological Society of America, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in partnership with AGI, this special event promotes awareness of the study, uses, importance of geologic mapping for education, science, business, and a variety of public policy concerns. You’ll get a blog post from me on finding geologic maps for your needs.

Saturday, October 17- International Archaeology Day. This day is hosted by the Archaeological Institute of America. Check them out, because this is one area where I can’t help you.

Happy Earth Science Week!

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