Archive for the 'Geology' Category

The Father of English Geology

Modern geologists look at layers of rock to study the age and history of the earth.  William Smith, an English surveyor was the first to realize these layers were predictable and map them.  In 1815 he created the first-ever nationwide geological map, showing the different rock strata across all of England, Wales, and parts of Scotland.  But Smith’s work was ignored by English scientific society.  His works were plagiarized and Smith was driven into bankruptcy.  Towards the end of his life, he was finally awarded the recognition he deserved.  Smith is now known as the “Father of English Geology.”

Smith’s map plots the location of major rock strata across Britain.  He indicates these strata with different colors, showing how they form and change across the country.  This map is the basis for all subsequent British geological maps, and is relatively accurate even when compared to maps produced with modern geological analysis methods.  Click here or on the picture above to see the full map.  Click here to see a detail of the map’s legend, and here to see a detail of the strata explanation. 

Smith began his career as a surveyor, and soon found work with the Somerset Coal Company helping dig and find locations for mines.  As he helped survey mine after mine, Smith began to realize that the different rocks he saw were repeated in the same patterns across wide stretches of land.  Moreover, he discovered that he could identify these strata by the fossils he found embedded in them, since each layer seemed to have different fossils:

. . . each stratum contained organized fossils peculiar to itself, and might, in cases otherwise doubtful, be recognised and discriminated from others like it, but in a different part of the series, by examination of them.

This means of dating rock is called the Principle of Faunal Succession, and is still a key tool for geologists today.

Smith collected geologic data from around Britain and compiled them into a series of maps showing how the strata of rock were laid out across the island.  The map above was one of his most significant–the first nationwide geological map of England ever produced.  Smith’s work as a mining surveyor influenced his work–the map shows the locations of significant coal, lead, copper, tin, salt, and alum deposits and mines.

Smith began publishing his maps and diagrams of the fossils he used to date them.  But Smith’s education was very humble by the standards of the contemporary scientific community.  As such, his work was ignored by many of England’s most prominent thinkers.  What interest there was in his work was eroded by plagiarizers, who sold Smith’s maps and diagrams for less than he was asking.  Unemployed and bankrupt, Smith was sent to debtors’ prison, his works ignored and forgotten.

After his release, with his home and property seized to pay his debts, Smith worked again as a surveyor until, slowly, scientists began to recognize the value of his work.  In 1831, over 15 years since the publication of the map above, Smith was recognized by the Geological Society of London and awarded the first annual Wollaston Medal, still awarded today by the Society for contributions to the field of geology.

The award was presented by Adam Sedgwick, a prominent English geologist with many of his own contributions to the field.  Sedgwick described Smith’s contributions to geology:

If, in the pride of our present strength, we were disposed to forget our origin, our very speech betrays us: for we use the language which he taught us in the infancy of our science. If we, by our united efforts, are chiselling the ornaments and slowly raising up the pinnacles of one of the temples of nature, it was he that gave the plan, and laid the foundations, and erected a portion of the solid walls, by the unassisted labour of his hands.

Sedgwick called Smith “the Father of English Geology”–an honor he is still known by today. 

Finally recognized by his peers, Smith was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law by Trinity College, and served as a commissioner to select the stone for the construction of the Palace of Westminster.  A crater on Mars is named after him.  And in 1977, the Geological Society established another award–the William Smith Medal–“awarded for excellence in contributions to applied and economic aspects of the science.” 

A detailed catalog of Smith’s works, viewable online, is available here from the Oxford Digital Library.  The quotes and some other information for this post came from this excellent biography of Smith from the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology.


Sichuan Province Earthquake

Most of you have probably heard by now about yesterday’s large earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter Scale in China’s Sichuan province.  As casualty reports continue to mount, several organizations have released maps of the affected areas.  The map above is a “shake map” showing the percieved shaking and potential damage throughout the area of the epicenter.  The star indicates the epicenter of the earthquake.  The scale at the bottom of the map also shows the percieved rate of movement of the ground during the earthquake.  The red area around the epicenter experienced ground moving at over than 3.8 feet per second. 

This map is part of a series available from the U.S. Geological Survey, including population exposure and historical seismicity.  The New York Times has also released an interactive map of the affected area, overlaying photographs, population figures, potential damage, and a couple of the most major incidents.  CNN has also released this more limited interactive map, overlaying a few significant events and statistics over a broader map of China.

Coming on the heels of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, this is a second major tragedy for Asia in less than two weeks.

A Bigger Down Under

I’ve sometimes heard people try to argue that Australia is not a continent.  They usually say this after looking at a Mercator projection map and remarking that it’s hardly bigger than Greenland, so why should it be a continent?  It may come as a surprise to these people that not only is Australia a continent, but the United Nations just officially made it bigger.  Much bigger.

With certain exceptions, continents are generally defined as the limits of a very large landmass and its associated underwater continental shelf.  As such, it’s usually the limit of this continental shelf that determines where a continent ends and the deep sea begins.  Since continental shelves can hold huge quantities of oil, natural gas, and other resources, delineating their borders can be an important and politically charged subject.

The Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, which came into effect in 1994, established rules for how countries could claim underwater continental shelves as part of their territory.  Based on these rules, Australia laid claim to 2.8 million square kilometers of new underwater territory, and submitted its claim to the United Nations for ratification.  On April 21, 2008, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, made up of “experts in the field of geology, geophysics or hydrology,” declared for Australia. 

Australia’s new territory is anything but insubstantial.  The 2.5 million square kilometers of continental shelf the UN awarded equal nearly one third of the country’s land area.  The area includes territory south of Tasmania, toward New Zealand, and out into the Indian Ocean.  It also includes territory that adjoins Australia’s claims in Antarctica.  According to Australia’s Minister for Resources and Energy, the new area is “five times the size of France, seven times the size of Germany and almost 10 times the size of New Zealand.”  Click on the header picture above for a full map of the new territory.

The UN decision gives the Australian government the right to drill for oil and natural gas in its new territories.  Perhaps more importantly, it gives them the authority the deny the right to drill to others.  This decision could prove to have long-lasting economic repercussions in Australia’s energy sector. According to one official, “a larger continental shelf means a larger canvas upon which we can paint our resource and energy future … We really know very little about the perceptivity of these areas, however, and increasing that knowledge will … encourage explorers into these areas.”

Welcome to Cartographia

Cartographia is a blog about how we use maps to represent the world around us, and how people interpret maps today and throughout history. Please feel free to send any questions, comments, or recommendations directly to me at