on 14 July 1997
Half of the excitement of embarking on an earth sciences degree is the opportunity to do hands-on science. The vast majority of new students relish the chance to find it all out for themselves-make their own observations and measurements, test their own hypotheses-in the best of all work environments, the field. Even those who lack motivation in the classroom often find new levels of determination when faced with the reality of a particularly gripping outcrop.
There is a downside to all this delirium. Budding geologists must learn to put up with harsh conditions during the many field classes that are run in the vacations outside the summer months. In Britain, they receive precious little support from their local education authorities, despite losing valuable opportunities to earn money during holidays and terms with part-time jobs. And they also have to equip themselves for the field by buying expensive weatherproof clothing and tools.
All in all, though, the experience of fieldwork is not just enjoyable and an excellent foundation in scientific experimental design. It is also good for a students future career.
"Hardly any universities support the concept of fieldwork nowadays."
Even if only a very few go on to become professional geologists, the benefits for students of learning to think on their feet, both literally and metaphorically, and of operating in harsh conditions while developing self-motivation and teamwork, make good highlights on CVs. Certainly, my students fare well in the graduate employment cattle market.
The trouble is that, although many explorers seem increasingly to realize the benefits of a strong field experience, the whole exercise is under more and more pressure. I'm sure that this arises largely from a deep misunderstanding of what fieldwork actually involves. And the misunderstanding also extends deep into the scientific community-even within those disciplines that have, like the earth sciences, a strong traditional fieldwork.
What triggers this odd perception? In a word, image. Fieldwork is often portrayed as an exercise in random data collection- a chance to potter about on your own, just looking around. The geological community hasn't helped itself much here: modern role models and good, clear presentations of excellence in fieldwork are few and far between. Curiously, other sciences have greatly benefited from fieldwork. Take astronomy, for example. How much of the interest in this science in the latter part of the 20th century was launched with the NASA lunar landing, the most expensive fieldwork ever undertaken? Indeed, the solution to the recent hot potato of life on Mars can only really be addressed through another batch of fieldwork-on the Red Planet itself.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, a new book by Christopher Scholz offers a number of important insights into earth sciences fieldwork. It is true that Fieldwork: A Geologist's Memoir of the Kalahari hardly touches on scientific issue as important as the physical and biological evolution of the Solar System. It is nevertheless a gripping account of a small research programme directed at understanding how continents rift apart.
Scholz's story recounts the activities of an expedition to collect geophysical data in Botswana. His research brief was to get a handle on earthquake hazards in and around the Okavango river delta in the Kalahari. So the book contains two currents: the narrative of the scientific investigative approach running alongside the human story-the personal excitement and frustration of life in the field.
Scholz's concurrent adventures make for a thrilling read. Attempted robberies, arrests, drinking sessions and expeditions to find a decent hamburger are intertwined with the conditions a geologists needs to receive good signals with seismometers. Scholz graphically describes the difficulties inherent in carrying out seismological experiments in hostile terrain, the hassles, with local, petty bureaucracies, the difficulties of working together in teams and living alongside heards of elephant and rhino. But this is much more than a Boy's Own account of African adventures.
As with most good science, Scholz's Okavango project arose by chance. The United Nations Development Programme runs a project on the Okavango delta, and its researchers wanted some idea of the earthquake hazard in the area. This delta, sited in the heart of the Kalahari desert, is a delicately balanced environment whose rivers are banked by extremely low ridges. If the ridges were formed by active faults, slip on the faults, manifested as earthquakes, could disrupt drainage in the region. This would cause massive ecological changes.
The UNDP approached Scholz and asked him to be its local "earthquake consultant". He, in contrast, was interested in the more general problem of how faults and earthquakes work, particularly in response to rifting in the continents.
After a bout of detective work involving global earthquake records and satellite images, Scholz realized that the Okavango area lay on a possible continuation of the rift valleys of eastern Africa. If so, the little faults in the Okavango represented an early stage of rifting, something that is extraordinarily difficult to observe elsewhere on Earth. The problem for Scholz lay in testing his ideas-hence his interest in the project to collect detailed data on small earthquakes by recording them directly in the Okavango area. So Scholz's expedition was a marriage of convenience, satisfying the interests of the UNDP in managing the ecology of the Okavango and, at the same time, allowing him to investigate, as he puts it, "a basic scientific problem".
I particularly enjoyed Scholz's description of the important early parts of his scientific expedition, the different motivations for the study and the groundwork needed when designing the experiment. These are the elements that are often missing from popular accounts of scientific expeditions. As a consequence, it is easy to lose sight of the motivations of the scientists themselves once they become embroiled in the challenges of a particularly exotic location. Or the technology gets in the way of the story- an all-too-common occurrence.
By avoiding these pitfalls, Fieldwork makes an exciting read for crusty old geologists, students in search of role models and all those wanting insight into the processes of scientific discovery. And it illustrates why fieldwork provides such an excellent training environment.
This should have left me feeling optimistic. Here I have a book that I can recommend to my students as a role model for their own studies. Of course, this type of expedition is unlike anything they might do themselves while studying, but there are useful parallels. And I can recommend the book to my friends and family who think that fieldwork is just a question of getting a nice tan in an exotic corner of the world.
The problem is that the pressure on scientific fieldwork by the organizations responsible for funding are very great indeed. Hardly any universities support the concept of fieldwork, requiring individual departments or, more commonly, the individual students to fund themselves. It is seen as a old-fashioned, unnecessary part of modern scientific endeavor, a bit of a luxury.
It may already be too late to convince the skeptics. Academic fieldwork is being severely penalized even for postgraduates. Britain's Natural Environment Research Council has recently cut its support for fieldwork radically, even through students going on scientific cruises using the council's ships or working in its laboratories can use these facilities without charge. Ships and laboratory costs are underwritten yet there is no specific fund for fieldwork. So I fear that, notwithstanding the wishes of employers and the excellent general training that fieldwork provides, its days are numbered. Even excellent books like Scholz's may be too late to reverse the tide.
Rob Butler teaches and researches at the University of Leads.
on 14 July 1997
In 1974 Christopher Scholz and his team carried out a survey of seismicity in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, at the request of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. They achieved some decent scientific results, but also had a whale of a time, with experiences varying from the comic through the awe-inspiring to the downright frightening.
Few Earth scientists write anything in the style of their life's memoirs, so this book is doubly welcome. It should appeal to a wide variety of readers, whether fieldworkers or not. The science is accessibly laid out and richly embroidered with tales of the bush.
The scientific problem that the team tackled was to discover whether there is an active extension of the East African rift system into Botswana. Is this the tip of the systems propagating itself southward? The question is potentially important because when a fault, such as that forming the edge of a rift, moves and generates an earthquake, there is a change of elevation along the line where the fault-plane reaches the surface. The Kalahari is very flat and the drainage system is in a delicate balance, around the Okavango delta, for example. A large change in the drainage pattern could easily be induced by only a minor movement, and lead to profound ecological consequences.
Botswana is not noted for big earthquakes, but any seismically active area produces many small earthquakes. So the survey had to deal with micro-earthquakes which, predictably, would turn up in sufficient number during the few months spent in the field. The technique is to install an array of three or more seismometers with recording devices, leave them for a day or several days, and then see what you have caught. Then the array is moved somewhere else, and so on.
But much of the Kalahari is covered with more-or-less unconsolidated sand, about the worst possible material through which to try to detect micro-earthquakes. As a result, much time had to be devoted to the search for areas of solid bedrock. This traveling about, setting up camp, overcoming obstacles, coping with the wildlife and, not least confronting officialdom, forms the substance of the book. It is rich in accounts of the incidents that such a mode of life throws up.
It was necessary, for example, to set up camp in a thick bush half a mile from the only watering hole for miles. The only clear strip of bush to camp on turned out to be the main route used by elephants at night on their way to have a drink. Add a few thousand nearby antelopes, lions, hyenas and so on, and the night becomes alarmingly noisy.
In the end, the party managed to observe a sufficient number of micro-earthquakes to confirm their hypothesis. The author comments that when the work was published, it did not cause a great stir, but he regards it as an honest and useful job well done.
Although much of the book is devoted to the sheer joy of life in the bush (and its perils), and is written so that you can almost smell the smoke of the camp-fire, the descriptions of occasional trips to town are just as evocative of Africa. We meet a rich array of ramshackle bars with ramshackle customers, we play plenty of darts and hear many a comic or curious yarn.
Perhaps the best is the one about the Afrikaner who, at a time of severe floods, managed one moonless night to drive across a bridge that not only had no handrail but was under two feet of water. On being asked how he managed this, he replied: "What bridge?"
Keith Cox is in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3LY, UK.