Formation has ‘fan club,’ 100 years of discoveries

Burgess Shale Has Stories to Tell

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

In July, the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation (BSGF), a not-for-profit Canadian organization focused on geoscience education and public outreach, kicks off the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess Shale, a formation containing a unique fossil assemblage of diverse, soft-bodied life forms that developed during the evolutionary “big-bang” called the Cambrian Explosion.

With only one full-time staff member, this small but vital organization relies heavily upon volunteers – oil and gas geologists, structural geologists, research paleontologists and climate change scientists – who are passionate about hiking in the Canadian Rockies, and who delight in bringing the lessons of the Burgess Shale to the general public, science teachers and school children.

During the past 14 years, the BSGF has guided more than 45,000 clients from all over the world to the two protected fossil locales in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park: the Walcott Quarry and the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds.

Serendipity played a role in the exquisite preservation of these animals’ soft body parts, and in their subsequent uplift and exposure during the Rocky Mountain Orogeny.

Serendipity played a further role in the discovery of the Burgess Shale: During the final days of the 1909 summer field season, Charles Doolittle Walcott, former head of the Smithsonian Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, was navigating Burgess Pass on horseback when he discovered these 505-million-year-old fossils, famous for their amazing diversity, bizarre life forms and out-of-this-world appendages and proboscises. Walcott had come to Yoho National Park, in search of “stone bugs” excavated during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The fossil discovery – and its significance to the understanding of the evolution of life – led to the protection of the Burgess Shale in 1981 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1984, the Burgess Shale was integrated into the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“The 2009 Centennial Program that’s been laid out is simply amazing – it reaches all stakeholders,” said AAPG member G. Warfield “Skip” Hobbs, a member of the BSGF’s board of directors and managing partner of Connecticut-based Ammonite Resources. “The programs are spread from Alberta to British Columbia, from one side of the Canadian Rockies to the other.

“The Burgess Shale is an outstanding natural field laboratory,” Hobbs continued. “The Burgess Shale appeals to everyone, whether you’re a six-year-old child interested in trilobites, or a renowned professor of paleontology.”

According to Hobbs, the BSGF’s three educational themes – the origin of life on Earth, mountain building and climate change – can all be observed during a single field trip in Yoho National Park.

“This is a place where one can observe the impact of climate change, first-hand,” he explained, describing hanging valleys, lateral moraines and the rapidly disappearing glaciers of the Canadian Rockies.

“The general public can see these features very easily – they’re readily accessible.”

The BSGF’s summer-long Centennial Celebrations are extensive – for hikers and non-hikers alike – and are designed to engage stakeholders from all over the world, introducing them to the wonders of geology.

Activities will include geo/paleo art for kids, guided hikes for kids (led by kids), hikes for the general public, a series of public Chautauqua gatherings featuring international and local lecturers, presentations by Walcott’s descendents and an historical re-enactment – on horseback and in period costume – of Walcott’s famous discovery of the Burgess Shale.

Making It Matter

The BSGF’s mandate is to increase science literacy, and its over-arching theme, “Putting Earth Back Into the Sciences,” is accomplished through education and public outreach.

“We know that most students who are interested in science will not be exposed to Earth sciences in the school system,” explained Jon Dudley, exploration manager of thermal oil sands for Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Limited. Dudley has been a BSGF volunteer for a decade, guiding to the Walcott Quarry and the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds, and instructing the science teachers’ workshop held in Yoho National Park every August.

This summer Dudley will deliver a Chautauqua lecture, “Of Mountains, Soda Pop and Carbon Dioxide.” The lecture’s title, he said, originated from his application of geological concepts to the high school chemistry curriculum.

“We’ve tried to take geological examples that kids can relate to,” he said, “and apply them to the pure sciences.”

“Everyone drives through the ‘blue’ Canadian Rockies,” Dudley continued, “so let’s talk about the chemical equilibrium, thermodynamics and reactions involving these mountains of rocks – let’s view the rocks as composed of minerals which are chemical compounds.”

During the years, Dudley has developed a tool kit of simple, geologically-based experiments and real-life exercises – focusing on carbon dioxide – for high school chemistry teachers to incorporate into their lesson plans:

  • Understanding that soda pop is fizzy, due to carbonic acid.
  • Dipping white paper into vinegar, to determine how much calcium carbonate is in the whitening compound in the paper.
  • Dipping fossils containing limestone into hydrochloric acid and observing the fizz.
  • Investigating the chemical reactions that occur at a cement plant located in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains.
  • Calculating how many moles of carbon dioxide are stored (or sequestered) in Mount Field in Yoho National Park – and measuring the equivalent volume of greenhouse gas that could be released from the mountain.

In its tenth year of operation, the three-day science teachers’ workshop attracts junior and high school teachers from Canada, the United States and globally. Classes range in size from 16 to 24 students.

AAPG member Clint Tippett, a principal regional geologist with Calgary-based Shell Canada Energy, volunteers as an instructor for the science teachers’ workshop. Tippett is part of a five-person team of professional geologists who spend their summer vacations running teachers through a crash course on geology 101 – lectures include mineral and rock identification, paleontology, glaciology, climate change, the use of topographic maps and the principles of coal, oil and gas extraction.

All of these lessons are reinforced during geological field trips that begin in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains and end west of the Continental Divide in Yoho National Park.

Philip Benham, a staff geologist at Shell Canada Energy, also assists in the science teachers’ workshop. “I enjoy the field trips the most, because the teachers ask some basic questions which really force me to think,” he said, “because geology is full of technical jargon.”

As part of the centennial celebrations, Benham will deliver a Chautauqua lecture titled “Circle of Life: The Influence of Continental Drift on Evolution.” The following day he’ll guide participants to the Walcott Quarry.

Benham gets excited when he can demonstrate oil and gas principles in the field. At Grassy Lakes, Alberta, he said, “the teachers can actually climb inside a pore in outcropping Devonian carbonates.” And at Mount Yamnuska, in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies, teachers can observe blue Cambrian carbonates thrusted over red Cretaceous shales.

“The teachers start looking at the mountains in a different way,” Tippett said. “They learn the concept of geological time – how long it takes to deposit rocks, and how long it actually took for the mountains to form.”

Tippett uses a time analogy for mountain building – which blows the teachers away – suggesting that the orogeny occurred at the same speed as human fingernails grow.

“It’s good to see the teachers’ enthusiasm, and to know that it’s going to be passed along to the students,” he said.

Convinced more than ever that the BSGF’s geoscience education program is addressing a need in today’s society, Tippett asks, rhetorically: “How knowledgeable are legislators and the general public about issues that are impacted by Earth sciences?”

Hobbs echoes Tippett’s comments: “If we hope to influence the political debate, we have to educate the general public. By promoting the BSGF, the resource sector (oil and gas, and mining) sees the returns come back, in spades.”

Making It Fun

Benham helped develop one of the BSGF’s innovative teaching tools, “Geopardy,” a board game fashioned after the TV-game-show “Jeopardy,” which features questions about basic science, geology and the oil and gas industry.

“The teachers get extremely competitive,” Benham said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

But science teachers aren’t the only ones playing “Geopardy” – this year marks the second anniversary of the BSGF’s Kids in Science Program (KISP), funded this year by Imperial Oil, the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists and APEGGA (the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta). KISP introduces geoscience careers to junior high school students.

In May, 35 KISP volunteer mentors will run 160 school children (grades 7-9) through a spirited game of “Geopardy,” and will squire them around the exhibit floor at the annual technical convention hosted by the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Canadian Well Logging Society.

Making It Accessible

Fifteen years ago, David Moore, an aspiring young geologist at the University of Calgary, landed his dream summer job – at the time, Moore said, he couldn’t believe that someone would actually pay him to guide groups to the Burgess Shale.

“I got into geology because I liked paleontology,” he recalled. “The Burgess Shale is ‘Mecca’ for paleontologists – it was like being asked to work on King Tut’s tomb, for an Egyptologist.”

Today Moore is team lead for Calgary-based Enerplus Resources Fund’s unconventional gas team and business development. As a BSGF volunteer for the centennial celebrations, Moore will give two Chautauqua lectures and guide two hikes to the Walcott Quarry. In addition, he’ll lead two private hikes for Enerplus, and conduct several “Lunch & Learns” in Calgary.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to reach out, to get people interested in the Burgess Shale and science in general,” Moore said. And, for geologists, he added, “hiking in the Rocky Mountains and connecting with the fossils reminds people about why they were interested in geology and science in the first place.”

Moore described the marathon, round-trip hike to the Walcott Quarry – it’s 14 miles long and includes a 2,500-foot vertical elevation gain – as “a team-building exercise.”

“People are excited; there’s a sense of discovery, awe and wonder,” he said. “They see gill branches on the undersides of arthropods that don’t survive 15 minutes, post-mortem, yet are preserved in the Burgess Shale – it’s like you’re touching part of the past.”

Making It a Part of History

The year 2009 also marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species and the 100th anniversary of the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway’s Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park – a complex feat of engineering, for its time, the layout of the twin spiral tunnels affords sightseers the opportunity to view trains looping onto themselves.

Moore’s Chautauqua lecture, “100 Years of Scientific Exploration and Discovery in Yoho National Park: The First Century,” will be presented against the backdrop of these anniversaries.

“I want to look at the Burgess Shale in a temporal context,” he said. “I want to tell the story of the Burgess Shale and the story of the evolution of science, at the same time.”

Added Moore: “I want to get the idea across that science is a process – it’s not infallible – and it’s a product of its time. Our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms or processes was very different in 1909 than it is today.”

As Dudley prepares to retire from the oil and gas industry this spring, he sees a continuing role – perhaps even a growing involvement – in his volunteer activities with the Burgess Shale. Dudley looks forward to applying the BSGF’s next generation of teaching tools: delivering science teachers’ workshops from the Walcott Quarry, in real time, and introducing digital education and public outreach to the world.

“Incorporation of this Webcast technology,” he said, “brings the world to our doorstep. We’ll be able to engage more people than we ever have before, and I definitely want to be a part of that.”

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Happy Birthday, Burgess Shale

Free Centennial Chautauqua lectures are scheduled from July to September, in Alberta and British Columbia. They include:

  • 100 Years of Scientific Exploration and Discovery in Yoho National Park: The First Century.
  • Great Canadian Fossils and the History of Life on Earth.
  • Aliens in Rocks.
  • A Geological Odyssey: Bicycling around Iceland.
  • Climate and the Geological Record of Climate Change.
  • Around the Permian World in 80 Slides.
  • From Galapagos Finches to the Burgess Shale: How Modern Biology Resolves Darwin’s Dilemma and the Evolution of Complexity.
  • Circle of Life: The Influence of Continental Drift on Evolution.
  • Fluid Geochemistry in the Western Canada Foreland Basin and Paleoclimate Influence.
  • Of Mountains, Soda Pop and Carbon Dioxide.
  • Polar Climate Crisis: Climate Change with particular focus on how the polar regions already have changed, and how they will continue to change.
  • From Oceans to Mountains … to Oceans.
  • The Geological History of the Burgess Shale Area: The History of the Planet from Creation Present with an Emphasis on the Burgess Shale and Rocky Mountains.

For a complete listing of the 2009 Centennial Celebration activities, including venues, dates and times, visit the BSGF’s Web site.


She Wears Two Hats for Burgess Shale

Susan R. Eaton
Susan R. Eaton

For the past year AAPG member and Explorer correspondent Susan R. Eaton has volunteered for the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation – specifically, Eaton has assisted with fundraising and media activities for the BSGF’s 2009 Centennial Program.

“Yoho National Park is one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies,” Eaton said, “and it contains the most significant fossil find of the century.”

Since first encountering the Burgess Shale some 15 years ago, Eaton has made the arduous trek to the Walcott Quarry on four occasions.

She also has hiked, twice, to the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds, where she introduced renowned geologist and best-selling author Simon Winchester to the natural wonders of the Burgess Shale.

“Imagine, traversing a mountain, chock-a-block full of trilobites of all shapes and sizes,” Eaton said. “Geologists and non-geologists alike must experience, first-hand, the excitement and wonder of the Burgess Shale.”

Oil and gas corporations and individuals alike can visit the BSGF’s Web site for information or to make a donation in support of the activities.

Photo courtesy of Alex Mowat.

Canadian Honorary Patron to Speak in Calgary

Roberta Bondar
Roberta Bondar

This summer’s Burgess Shale Centennial Celebrations will feature a keynote address byRoberta Bondar, a Canadian medical doctor, recipient of the NASA Space Medal and astronaut aboard the space shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-42.

Her July 14 speech, to be delivered in Calgary, is titled “The Fossil and the Astronaut – Exploring Earth from Inner and Outer Space,” and will target the general public and school children.

As Canada’s Honorary Patron for the UNESCO-designated International Year of the Planet Earth, Bondar’s role is to advance science literacy across Canada and to strengthen environmental education in the curriculum, from K-12.

Among her many accomplishments, which include 24 honorary doctorates from Canadian and American universities, Bondar is an internationally acclaimed photographer, with four best-selling photo essay books on the natural wonders of Earth – and following her keynote address she will visit the Walcott Quarry to discover and photograph the “other-worldly” fossilized animals of the Burgess Shale.