Standing in front of the rugged peaks that dot the deep red South Australian landscape, it’s hard to imagine that the Flinders Ranges was once in an ice age.
Some 600 million years ago these peaks were non-existent, instead glaciers formed and encapsulated the land. It wasn’t until approximately 515 million years ago that the Delamerian orogeny took place, thickening the earth’s crust, compressing the land and creating the structure of the spectacular mountain ranges that we see today.
Fast forward 600 million years to one frosty July morning and you will find a group of inquisitive geology students from UOW and the University of Colorado (CU) working together to understand how and why the mountain range came to be the way it is today.
Give me a home among the gum trees
Nestled alongside a river red gum-lined creek lies Gum Creek Station, a family homestead with seven generations and the world’s friendliest chocolate brown Labrador. Eucalypts dot the property, which is located 480km north of Adelaide and stretches along the northern boundary of the Flinders Ranges National Park.
It is here that 18 undergraduate students begin their two-week journey back in time, joined by a team of earth science staff from UOW and CU, to explore the evolution of the Flinders Ranges and the southern Australian coastline from the Pre-Cambrian to the present.
The Flinders Ranges is arguably one of the most spectacular backdrops for an outback adventure. It’s home to an abundance of native wildlife and rich Aboriginal heritage and you don’t have to dig too deep to discover Pre-Cambrian fossils and landscape evolution dating back hundreds of millions of years.
The field trip, run jointly between the University of Wollongong and the University of Colorado, explored the evolution of Southern Australia, covering the Flinders Ranges through to the Great Ocean Road.
Skills to last a lifetime
Third year UOW Geosciences student Braiya White initially had her heart set on archaeology, and ended up falling in love with geology by accident.
“I wanted to study archaeology, but the more I saw the more I fell in love with geology and piecing together how the world works – so I decided to stick it out and I’m so glad I did,” Braiya says. Deciding to come to the Flinders Ranges was as an easy call for Braiya to make.
“I really enjoy fieldwork. It builds your confidence because you have to learn on the go. It’s not like you get 13 weeks to read a book and process those answers – you see it in the field, you identify the geologic features and you work out the pieces of the puzzle as you go along.
“It’s way better than reading.”
Dr Tim Cohen from UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences is adamant the practical skills gained through fieldwork far outweigh those that can be taught in a classroom.
You can only learn so much about the natural sciences from a book or a classroom.Dr Tim Cohen
“Our students are out here learning how to interpret the landscape, how to interpret the rock record and really honing their field skills, which will ultimately build them into better scientists,” Tim says. “Here we can show students desert landscapes, we can show them mountain ranges that were folded 500 million years ago, and we can expose them to many things we can’t readily do in the Wollongong region.”
CU Earth scientist Dr Lon Abbott agrees that pairing real-life observation with the theoretical understanding gained in the classroom is the most influential way to teach geology.
“Our students aren’t just sitting at a desk in a classroom with some talking head spouting information at them, giving them facts to memorise and regurgitate on a test. They’re exploring their surroundings, observing carefully and interpreting for themselves – discovering their own knowledge.”
“In a field setting everything is thrown at you, everything that could happen is in play and you have to sift through it. It’s really organic learning and I think it sticks with people more than anything else.”
An international affair
Five months in a wheelchair after a rock climbing accident a few years back hasn’t stopped CU’s Dr Lon Abbott from chasing rocks all over the world.
“He’s crazy, but in a good way,” one of his students says to their Australian counterpart. “He still took us on field trips straight after the accident, his leg in a cast and all.”
Lon says growing up at the base of the mountains in Boulder, Colorado ignited his passion for the outdoors.
You’ll find that a lot of geologists are drawn to the field because they love the outdoors and they get curious about how and why these spectacular places come to look the way they do.Dr Lon Abbott
This sentiment is echoed in his students. “When I first came to the geology department at CU everyone was so passionate, and once I started listening to the subjects I thought, wow, these rocks can tell us a really cool story. I like to piece together the clues to figure out what has actually happened in our history,” final year CU student Elise Presprich says.
Australia holds a place close to Lon’s heart. In 2014 Lon swapped lives with UOW’s Dr Tim Cohen, undertaking a six-month stint with UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences as a Visiting Research Fellow and collaborating on the tectonic history of Eastern Australia.
“The geology here [in Australia] is just fantastic. Particularly here in the Flinders Ranges, we’re looking at the Ediacaran and the Pre-Cambrian period and seeing geology that we can’t see at home in Colorado,” Lon says.
Race you to the bottom
Widely known as ‘the jewel in the crown’, Wilpena Pound boasts a natural amphitheatre featuring quartzites in synclinal structures. For those playing along at home, that means a jaw-droppingly spectacular view from the top.
“Brian said if we beat him down the mountain we don’t have to do homework tonight,” one student says to his classmate as they navigate their way down St Mary’s Peak, the highest point in Wilpena Pound.
“There’s no way we’re beating Brian,” she laughs back at him.
Associate Professor Brian Jones from UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Science has been teaching geology at UOW for more than 40 years. As he nimbly descends the steep mountain track, it’s clear that Brian is no stranger to the rugged peaks of the Flinders Ranges.
“The rocks and features these students are seeing are world class, we’re seeing outcrops and covering a time span that we can’t see at home,” Brian says. “Even if you’ve been to an outcrop many times in the past and you’re looking at the same ones, you can always find something new that you might have missed in previous trips.”
A corridor through time
Imprints of stromatolites, some of the earliest forms of life on the planet, dot the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail – day two’s destination for our intrepid geologists. Red river gums line the road, made all the more spectacular by the orange-hued Bonney Sandstone.
For this group of students however, they’re not looking up, they’re scouring the ground in search of Pre-Cambrian Ediacaran fossils – animal-like organisms that are universally recognised as the first complex multicellular life in Earth’s history.
At the fourth stop for the day, an excited buzz starts to form. “We’re about to get to one of the most exciting parts of the trip – the Golden Spike,” Lon explains.
The Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), affectionately known as the ‘Golden Spike’, is an internationally agreed point that marks the start of a stage on the geologic time scale. It is a globally-recognised marker for where the Ediacara start to appear, and there’s only one such GSSP in the entire Southern Hemisphere.
“This mark right here is THE global definition of the Ediacaran period. If you are studying this time period anywhere on earth, this is where you come to see the standard. It’s pretty exciting.”
Sharing the inspiration
Tim says that the learning outcomes for his class are “quite amazing”.
“We get to see rock sequences that tell us about ice house Earth, hot house Earth. We get to see sequences that show the fluctuations of the earth’s climate between glacial full snowball earth conditions through to warm, ocean-dominated conditions and evidence of some of the first soft-bodied organisms.
We get to investigate the impacts of climate change that occurred in the deep past right through to more recent climate change (over the last 20 – 50,000 years) that has also influenced Australia’s desert interiors.
“We have four individuals on this trip who are specialists in particular fields, so we’ve got both the capacity and the interest to have individuals who want to teach in and deliver content and locations that are really relevant to particular time periods.”
One such specialist is Professor Allen Nutman from UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Allen specialises in deep time and the very beginnings of geological record, including the use of field geochemistry in helping to define climate variations.
“Here in the Flinders we see a unique time in Earth’s history when there was a fluctuation in climate from ice house to hot house, and we are literally walking through a whole lot of climatic changes in Earth’s history which took place over a relatively short time.”
Recently, he was part of a team of a team of researchers who uncovered the world’s oldest fossils in a remote area of Greenland, capturing the earliest history of the planet and demonstrating that life on Earth emerged rapidly in the planet’s early years. They discovered 3.7 billion year old stromatolite fossils in the world’s oldest sedimentary rocks, in the Isua Greenstone Belt along the edge of Greenland’s icecap.
“The significance of stromatolites is that not only do they provide obvious evidence of ancient life that is visible with the naked eye, but that they are complex ecosystems,” Professor Nutman said. “This indicates that as long as 3.7 billion years ago microbial life was already diverse. This diversity shows that life emerged within the first few hundred millions years of Earth’s existence, which is in keeping with biologists’ calculations showing the great antiquity of life’s genetic code.”
Allen’s contribution to the trip included the use of zircon geochronology for determining the age of ancient sequences, something that gave Braiya a deeper understanding of how geology fits into the world.
“By looking at the age variation of the rocks and the different deposits we can see how the Earth has changed in climate and the variations in oceans over time. “What we’re exploring is real life things that have happened in the past and environmental processes that have caused it. We can then compare it to modern day examples – although sometimes the things we see are just so rare that there’s no comparison.”
But it’s not only the students who benefit.
“I get the opportunity to bring students to the places I love and hopefully pass on some inspiration,” Tim says. “I definitely get a lot of personal satisfaction from seeing the students exploring, discovering their passion for earth science.”
Words: Emilie Wells
Photos: Paul Jones