24 April 2010

Accretionary Wedge 24 - Geological Heroes - John Wesley Powell

This month's accretionary wedge is hosted at Mountain Beltway with the theme "geological heroes". I gave this some consideration, there are just some many to choose from. Geology is a subject made for and indeed, made by, heroes. So moving away from the obvious Victorian giants such as Lyle, Sedgwick and Lapworth, it is hard to ignore William Smith, the father of the geological map. One also has to consider Mary Anning, who made a huge contribution to palaeontology at a time when women were supposed to just sew, read and entertain. In the 20th Century there is Arthur Holmes who resurrected Wagner’s continental drift hypothesis and provide a driving force for plate motion. Closer to my open heart are people like Heno Martin who spent the 2nd World War hiding in the Namib Desert from the British Army and since he was bored started to map it. He later went on to be the director of the Namibian Geological Survey. How about Ian Wilson who rode a motor bike out to Libya and studied aeolian landforms? He sadly died young, but penned my favourite article title "Ergs". Not "Large aeolian sandseas: examples from modern Africa" or anything woolly like that - just "Ergs", a word most people wouldn't even understand. Another aeolian giant, all be it of small stature is Ken Glennie. In 1967, the year I was born, Shell having discovered gas in the Southern North Sea and realising that the reservoirs might be aeolian dispatched him to North Africa with the instruction "go and learn about deserts". Which he did. Most significantly I think his work ushered in a new era of understanding reservoirs from a geological and sedimentological perspective.

And of course it is impossible to ignore the biggest geological hero of all time Charles Darwin a scientific giant without peer. But I moved away from all of these to a man who's work is very close to my heart - John Wesley Powell.

Powell was born in New York in March 1834 the son of a poor preacher. Powell failed to graduate from college and instead undertook a series of expeditions down the majors rivers of US including the Mississippi and the Missouri. He was a keen observer of natural history and taught himself geology. When the civil war broke out he signed up to the Union army and served as a Major. He lost an arm to a musket ball at the battle of Shiloh.

After the war he became Professor of Geology at Illinois University but he was restless and looking for a new challenge. While mapping and exploring the Colorado Plateau he pulled together a team of veterans and set off on an expedition to map the uncharted canyons of the Colorado River. Setting out from Green River Wyoming in May 1869, the first journey quickly turned from a mapping trip into a battle for survival. The expedition covered 900 miles and emerged battered but not beaten at the Virgin River, present day Lake Mead, 3 months later. Despite the hardship of the trip Powell returned two years later and re-did the trip, this time with a bit more preparation and planning. He wrote up the expedition in his classic book “Exploration of the Colorado River” which was published in 1875.

After the Colorado trips Powell became the second director of the USGS, a most which he held until 1894. He also had a very strong social conscience and was dedicated to supporting native American culture and development. He died in 1905.

Powell's expatiations opened up the western US. He could hardly have known the geological significance of his trip which starts in the Tertiary and traverses virtually every stratigraphic unit to the PreCambrian, but his expedition led to the settlement of the Colorado Plateau.

I have been working in the Colorado Plateau for 15 years. I have run all of the major rivers, including the Grand Canyon and I have feasted on the fantastic geology that the region has to offer. Despite spending a lot of time in the region it is almost impossible for us to imagine the challenges that these people faced. There is nothing equivalent to it now not even the exploration of space. When Powell headed off down the Colorado river they had no idea what was around the next corner, huge rapids or a 200 foot waterfall. This degree of uncertainty simply does not exist in a world that is completely mapped and covered by Google Earth and QuickBird. The isolation of being in the Canyon without a mobile or satellite phone to call for help when things go wrong. The total isolation of the situation and the self sufficiency of these people who lived there field work is something that is sadly lost to us now.


Trenchless Geologist said...

John Wesley Powell is also a hero of mine as well. During the Civil War, he designed the forts at Cape Girardeau, Missouri as a Lieutenant; fought at Shiloh as you indicated, with the 2nd US Artillery (Light)(as a Captain), RE-appeared at Vickburg leading a crew of tunnelers who were ready to open fire on the morning of July 4, 1863, the day Vicksburg surrendered; AND was promoted to Major in time for the Battle of Franklin, Tenn. As a true hero he is buried in a place of heroes - Arlington National Cemetary, Arlington, VA.

John said...

Interesting stuff, I didn't know all of that. Thanks