Otley Science Festival: Geology a 'super power' that can teach us about climate change, says Professor Chris Jackson before Otley Courthouse talk

Geology is like a “super power”, enthuses Professor Chris Jackson. It can “do everything,” he says. “The reason we’ve got smart phones is because of geologists. The reason you can drive a car is because of a geologist. All of these things, geology is absolutely central to it, there’s no other way it can be done. If it’s not grown, it’s found, is a good saying. And the geologists are the ones who find all of these things.”

Another area geology is essential to, clearly, is the environment – so it can teach us important things about climate change.

That’s the subject Prof Jackon - a visiting professor at the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College in London, though based in Marple near Stockport - will be exploring with his talk at Otley Science Festival in West Yorkshire.

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As part of the celebration of science, he will deliver ‘The Geological Record of Climate Change’ at 7.30pm on Tuesday next week at the Otley Courthouse venue.

An Otley Science Festival fair.An Otley Science Festival fair.
An Otley Science Festival fair.

“Hopefully it will make people reimagine what they think about geology,” says Prof Jackson. “If they’re coming into the room thinking geology is just about rocks, I think at the end of the 30 minutes or so, hopefully they’ll have a new appreciation for precisely how important it is just in general but also specifically about climate change and how looking at the earth history gives us a baseline against which to measure everything we’re living through now.”

And his assessment of the challange we are living through, in climate change, is admittedly “very bleak”.

Climate change is on everybody’s lips. It’s the biggest issue we face now and we are going to face over the next few decades but to understand what we’re living through now and what we may live through in the future, it’s really important to go back and look at the geological past.”

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He adds: “ So I’m hoping people leave the room thinking, okay, the climate has changed in the past, quite significantly. That change has not been due to human activities because it was before humans were on earth, it was because of these natural drivers, there were natural ways in which the earth’s climate changed, but, critically, during those times of extreme environmental change and climatic change, lots of life on earth died out, so we had these mass extinctions.

“The problem is it’s then very easy to dismiss what we’re living through now as being just a reflection of what’s happened in the geological past but, actually, the rate of warming and the way in which the earth is warming is actually quite unique - it’s almost unique in all of 4.5 billion years worth of history. There’s only been two times in history when the planet has been warming faster than it is now, which is incredible to think, so I want people to go away with those two slightly almost seemingly contradictory things - the earth’s climate has changed in the past when we weren’t here but actually what happened to life on earth during those times of change is not good for us.”

He draws a comparison to when, more than 66 million years ago, the Chicxulub asteroid hit what is now offshore Mexico, resulting in climate disruption and making non-avian dinosaurs extinct.

"That was a unique freak of geological circumstance, that a big rock hit the planet and that was one of the only other times when the planet was warming quicker than now,” says Prof Jackson. “So it might seem like nothing’s about to hit the planet, like another big rock, but the problem is we’re outputting all of these greenhouse gases and it’s having the same effect as that rock hitting the earth. Then you point to the extinctions and say every time we’ve seen these planetary warmings, what we’ve seen is between 70 and 95 per cent of all life on earth died out.”

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Talking as world leaders prepared to gather at COP 27 in Egypt, Prof Jackson was not optimistic about the rate of progress on the climate but suggests that investment in low-carbon energy such as wind could be a way of addressing it.

Prof Jackson, 45, was brought up in Derbyshire and visits to the Peak District inspired his love of geology. He studied at the University of Manchester and says his “life since then has been a series of fortunate accidents”.

Tickets for Prof Chris Jackson - The Geological Record of Climate Change are £10 and can be booked at: https://otleycourthouse.ticketsolve.com/ticketbooth/shows/1173631207