In 2010, Nick Eyles, professor of geology at the University of Toronto, was host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s five-part TV documentary series called “Geologic Journey – World.”
A first-time TV-show host at that time, Eyles never could have predicted that the top-rated CBC-TV series – viewed by millions of Canadians – would swell the ranks of his first-year university geology course from 350 to over 1,000 students.
Created by CBC-TV’s “The Nature of Things,” Canada’s premier science television program, “Geologic Journey – World” brought geology into the living rooms of Canadians, illustrating how geological processes and society are inextricably linked.
In conjunction with the television series, CBC-TV developed a teachers’ resource guide, which has been incorporated into the science curriculum by 70 percent of Canadian high schools.
Telling the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year story in a manner that both educates and entertains the general public is no easy task, according to Eyles, a geologist who specializes in glaciology, glacial geology and urban environmental issues. During a nine-month odyssey and geologic journey across every continent save Antarctica, Eyles and the TV crew visited 24 countries – narrowly escaping four volcanic eruptions and six earthquakes.
At ease in front of the camera during his first television role, Eyles was confronted by hostile teenagers brandishing AK-47s in the East African Rift Valley.
In Indonesia, he interviewed a sultan who claimed to be the intermediary between a volcano and his people. Equipped with a gas mask, Eyles braved toxic gases to peer into the guts of a seismically active volcano with a recent history of death and destruction.
“We take viewers on a planetary journey to meet a lot of interesting people living in geologically active areas,” Eyles said. “I see the TV series as a way to reposition geology in the broader community.
“You’re changing peoples’ lives,” he added, “and they’ll never see the planet the same way.”
A Story to Tell
According to Eyles, the Earth’s history is the story of the oceans.
“It’s a story of oceans opening, maturing and dying,” he said. “The Earth is comprised of super-continents with 400- to 500-million year cycles – they come together and they break up – and geologists have recognized three cycles in the past record.”
According to Eyles, the planet is half-way through its latest cycle of tectonic plate reconstruction.
“Geologic Journey – World” followed on the heels of “Geologic Journey – Canada,” which aired in 2007.
Eyles, the chief scientific adviser to “Geologic Journey – Canada,” also has authored several geology text books, “Ontario Rocks,” “Canada Rocks” (with AAPG member Andrew Miall) and “Canadian Shield – The Rocks That Made Canada.”
Toronto-based Michael Allder was the executive producer of “The Nature of Things” from 1997 to 2010. “It was a huge feat to film these two television series,” said Allder, who also was the executive producer of “Geologic Journey – World” and “Geologic Journey – Canada.” “The extraordinary power of nature is humbling.
“The challenge was how to tell this geologic story, and how to build an interesting narrative,” he said. “It’s far easier to tell stories about four-legged animals.”
In order to captivate the audience’s attention, Allder’s crews filmed the Earth from a helicopter-mounted camera; on the ground, they used jibs and cranes to showcase landscapes and geological features; and in the studio, they combined video with state-of-the-art 2-D and 3-D animation, which lent itself to time simulations.
“I think that the audience is there,” Allder said, “it’s just a matter of respecting their intelligence.”
Around the World
In “Geologic Journey – World,” Eyles described the perfect storm for Egypt’s original “Arab Spring.” During Ancient Egypt, climate change caused droughts and sporadic flooding of the Nile, precipitating social upheaval and the first Arab uprising against the Pharaohs and high priests.
According to Eyles, many geological terms – including obsidian, opheolite and basalt – originated in ancient Egypt and were later incorporated by the Romans and Greeks.
In the hunt for gold deposits, Egyptian Pharaohs paid their teams of geologists in beer.
Eyles pointed to the world’s first geological map, drawn 3,050 years ago by geologists of ancient Egypt. The map, sketched on papyrus paper for Ramses IV, showed a meandering river in the Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.
“This was truly the map that changed the world,” Eyles said, playing off of Simon Winchester’s best-selling book, “The Map that Changed the World,” about William Smith who produced the first comprehensive geological map of the United Kingdom in 1815.
Traveling further back in human and geological time – to the East African Rift – Eyles described early man, Homo habilus, as “a handy-man and perhaps the world’s first geologist.”
Added Eyles: “To make a tool, you’ve got to know your rocks.”
Jumping continents to the New World, Eyles explored the Ring of Fire and Chile’s Nazca plate, a subduction zone that’s consuming dying oceanic crust and converting it to continental crust.
“When you melt oceanic crust and add sea water and sediments,” he said, “you create andesite with highly explosive eruptions.”
Eyles visited the Chaiten Volcano located near the Chile’s Pacific Coast – seismically active, Chaiten erupts with regularity, spewing pyroclastics and thick, viscous lava flows that destroy nearby villages.
Equipped with a protective gas mask, Eyles peered into Chaiten’s caldera, noting that the volcanic plug was just a year old and represented “a catastrophe in the making.”
Interviewing Chileans who lived in Chaiten’s shadow and path of destruction, Eyles asked: “Why do you continue to live here?”
After a thoughtful pause, one Chilean man answered:
“This is just as dangerous as living in a big North American city.”
Engaging Students in Geology
“Geology is having a hard time recruiting students from high school,” explained Eyles, who points to the game-changer in the science curriculum associated with “Geologic Journey – World.”
“Geology gets a bad rap in the media, but mining and the oil and gas industries are fundamental to our society,” he said.
“CBC-TV no longer looks at geology as a source of society’s problems,” he added.
Eyles has restructured the teaching format for his first-year geology course, closely following the “Geologic Journey – World.” Given the urban and multi-cultural make-up of today’s student population, he said the television series offers a new way to teach first-year geology at university.
“We go on a world trip during the university lecture series,” Eyles said. “The students like it because you’ve got people who live in these risky geological areas, and it puts a human face on geology.
“Risk is relative,” he added. “The audience (including his university students) isn’t listening to the professor – rather, they’re listening to the stakeholder telling his story.”