Episodes
At roughly 15-25-million-year intervals since the Archean, huge volumes of lava have spewed onto the Earth’s surface. These form the large igneous provinces, which are called flood basalts when they occur on continents. As Richard Ernst explains in the podcast, the eruption of a large igneous province can initiate the rifting of continents, disrupt the environment enough to cause a mass extinction, and promote mineralization that produces valuable mineral resources. Richard Ernst studies...
Published 04/10/24
Published 04/10/24
Perhaps as many as five times over the course of Earth history, most of the continents gathered together to form a supercontinent. The supercontinents lasted on the order of a hundred million years before breaking apart and dispersing the continents. For decades, we theorized that this cycle of amalgamation and breakup was caused by near-surface tectonic processes such as subduction that swallowed the oceans between the continents and upper mantle convection that triggered the rifting that...
Published 02/24/24
The Earth’s tectonic plates float on top of the ductile portion of the Earth’s mantle called the asthenosphere. The properties of the asthenosphere, in particular its viscosity, are thought to play a key role in determining how plates move, subduct, and how melt is produced and accumulates. We would like to know what the viscosity of the the asthenosphere is, and how it depends on temperature, pressure, and the proportion of melt and water it contains. Few mantle rocks ever reach the Earth’s...
Published 02/09/24
In many countries, nuclear power is a significant part of the energy mix being planned as part of the drive to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions. This means that we will be producing a lot more radioactive waste, some of it with half-lives that approach geological timescales, which are orders of magnitude greater than timescales associated with human civilizations. In the podcast, Claire Corkhill discusses the geology such storage sites require, some new materials that can confine...
Published 01/07/24
We have learned a great deal about the geology of the Moon from remote sensing instruments aboard lunar orbiters, from robot landers, from the Apollo landings, and from samples returned to the Earth by Apollo and robot landings. But in 2025, when NASA plans to land humans on the Moon for the first time since 1972, a new phase of lunar exploration is expected to begin. What will this mean for our understanding of the origin, evolution, and present structure of the Moon? A lot, according to...
Published 12/22/23
At the core of Earth’s geological thermostat is the dissolution of silicate minerals in the presence of atmospheric carbon dioxide and liquid water. But at large scales, the effectiveness and temperature sensitivity of this reaction depends on geomorphological, climatic, and tectonic factors that vary greatly from place to place. As described in the podcast, to predict watershed-scale or global temperature sensitivity, Susan Brantley characterizes these factors using the standard formula for...
Published 12/10/23
Banded Iron Formations (BIFs) are a visually striking group of sedimentary rocks that are iron rich and almost exclusively deposited in the Precambrian. Their existence points to a major marine iron cycle that does not operate today. Several theories have been proposed to explain how the BIFs formed. While they all involve the precipitation of ferric (Fe3+) iron hydroxides from the seawater via oxidation of dissolved ferrous (Fe2+) iron that was abundant when the oceans contained very low...
Published 11/12/23
The geological history of most regions is shaped by a whole range of processes that occur at temperatures ranging from above 800°C to as low as 100°C. The timing of events occurring over a particular temperature range can be recorded by a mineral which crystallizes over that range. The mineral calcite is suitable for recording low-temperature processes such as fossilization, sedimentation, and fluid flow, and it is especially useful as it is virtually ubiquitous. But using uranium-lead...
Published 10/18/23
In this episode, Martin Van Kranendonk lays out a convincing case for life on Earth going back to at least 3.48 billion years ago. To find evidence for very ancient life, we need to look at rocks that have been largely undisturbed over billions of years of Earth history. Such rocks have been found in the Pilbara region of northwest Australia. As explained in the podcast, the 3.48-billion-year-old (Ga) rocks of the Pilbara's Dresser Formation contain exceptionally well-preserved features...
Published 09/12/23
The Alps are the most intensively studied of all mountain chains, being readily accessed from the geological research centers of Europe. But despite this, there remains considerable uncertainty as to how they formed, especially in the Eocene (about 40 million years ago) when the events that led directly to Alpine mountain-building started. In the podcast, Rob Butler explains how much of this uncertainty stems from our fragmentary knowledge of the locations and structures of sedimentary basins...
Published 08/17/23
The Franciscan Complex is a large accretionary prism that has been accreted onto the western margin of the North American continent. Unlike most such prisms, which are submarine, it is exposed on land, making it a magnet for researchers such as John Wakabayashi. In the podcast, he describes this remarkable complex and explains the mechanisms that may have operated over its 150-million-year history. John Wakabayashi is a Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at...
Published 07/03/23
How can we tell if the sedimentary record is good enough to make solid inferences about the geological past? After all, it can be difficult, or even impossible, to infer what is missing, or indeed whether anything is missing at all. As he explains in the podcast, Bruce Levell tackles this question by combining fieldwork with systematic analysis based on what we know about contemporary deposition and erosion. Armed with an understanding of preservational bias, he questions the confidence with...
Published 06/20/23
In a recent episode, Nadja Drabon spoke about newly discovered zircon crystals that formed during the late Hadean and early Archean, when the Earth was between 500 million and a billion years old.  The zircons revealed information about processes occurring in the Earth’s nascent crust, casting light on when and how modern-day plate tectonics may have started.  In this episode, we talk about a very different source of information about the early Earth, namely the abundances of noble gases...
Published 04/20/23
In 2011, a massive earthquake struck off the eastern coast of Japan. The destructive power of the earthquake was amplified by a giant tsunami that swept ashore, killing over 15,000 people. A major cause of the tsunami was the 50-m slip along the plate boundary fault between the subducting Pacific plate and the overriding North American plate. Patrick Fulton and his team set out to find out why there was so much movement along the fault by installing a temperature observatory in a borehole...
Published 03/23/23
Romain Jolivet studies active faults and the relative motion of tectonic plates.  His research focuses on the relationship between slow, aseismic slip that occurs “silently” between earthquakes and the rapid slip accompanying earthquakes.  As he describes in the podcast, he uses interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) images from radar satellites to examine surface deformation over wide areas at meter-scale resolution.  InSAR images of the 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquakes reveal...
Published 03/02/23
The geological record shows that the Earth’s carbon cycle suffered over 30 major disruptions during the Phanerozoic.  Some of the biggest ones were accompanied by mass extinctions.  Dan Rothman analyzed these disruptions to find a pattern governing their magnitude and duration.  As he explains in the podcast, this pattern is suggestive of a non-linear dynamical system that, once excited, undergoes a large excursion before returning to where it was.  Could we be exciting such a disruption...
Published 02/10/23
Vanishingly few traces of the early Earth are known, so when a new source of zircon crystals of Hadean age is discovered, it makes a big difference to what we can infer about that eon.  In the podcast, Nadja Drabon describes how she analyzed the new zircons she and her colleagues discovered and what they reveal about the Earth’s crust between about 4 and 3.6 billion years ago. Nadja Drabon is Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. For podcast illustrations...
Published 01/02/23
Over the course of Earth history, many parts of the crust have undergone multiple episodes of metamorphism.  Modern methods of dating and measuring trace-element abundances are now able to tease out the timing and conditions of the individual episodes.  But new techniques were needed before these methods could be scaled up to unravel regional tectonic events such as the formation of mountain belts and subduction zones and continental rifting.  In the podcast, John Cottle describes one such...
Published 12/03/22
This episode is the second of two of my conversation with Martin Gibling.  In the first episode, we discuss fluvial deposits in the geological record and we trace the effect that the break-up of Pangea around 200 million years ago had on river systems.  In this episode, we address the history of the rivers of Europe and the Americas, as well as the impact of the recent ice ages on today’s rivers.  We end by considering how humans have changed rivers and their deposits throughout mankind’s...
Published 11/10/22
Rivers can seem very ephemeral, often changing course or drying up entirely.  Yet some rivers have persisted for tens or even hundreds of millions of years, even testifying to the breakup of Pangea, the most recent supercontinent, about 200 million years ago.  On the one hand, their courses may be determined by tectonic processes such as the formation of mountain belts.  And on the other, they themselves can affect tectonic processes by creating continent-scale features, such as giant...
Published 11/10/22
This episode is a bit of a departure from the objective approach to geology of past episodes in that here we address the subjective nature of various rocks as experienced by a rock climber with a literary bent. A rock climber’s very survival can depend on the properties of a rock encountered along a climbing route.  This engenders a uniquely intense relationship between climber and rock.  Anna Fleming has written perceptively about this intense relationship gained from climbing in Britain...
Published 10/10/22
Between 1.3 and 1.1 billion years ago, magma from the Earth's mantle intruded into a continent during the assembly of the supercontinent called Nuna. Through good fortune, the dykes and central complexes that resulted have been preserved in near-pristine condition in what is now the south of Greenland. The dykes are extraordinarily thick, and the central complexes contain an order of magnitude more exotic minerals than otherwise similar complexes around the world. In the podcast, Brian Upton...
Published 09/02/22
Subduction zones are places where a slab of oceanic lithosphere plunges into the mantle below.  The slab consists of the sediments on top, crustal rocks in the middle, and the lithospheric mantle on the bottom, all plunging down together as a kind of sandwich.  In each of these layers is an ingredient that plays a key role in shaping the evolution of the Earth over geological time – and that is water. Geoff Abers has conducted extensive research on water in subduction zones.  In this...
Published 08/10/22
Popular reconstructions of ancient environments, whether they be in natural history museum dioramas, in movies, or in books, present a world of color. But are those colors just fanciful renderings, perhaps based on the colors we see around us today?  Or is there evidence in the fossil record that we can use to determine the actual color of plants and animals that lived in the geological past? Maria McNamara tries to answer these questions by studying the fossil preservation of soft tissues,...
Published 06/17/22