New look at old worlds

Changing North Africa

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

It turns out that even in the most ancient of lands, change is a constant.

After decades spent visiting Morocco as well as trips to neighboring Algeria, an AAPG member who’s led countless field trips to some of the earth’s most exotic places says the two old countries are evolving into modern times.

“Over the last 40 years in Morocco I’ve seen an evolution of all aspects of their life,” said John Warme, professor emeritus of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.

He’s been to Morocco about 25 times for fieldwork, seminars and meetings. In Algeria he has done some consulting work and field trips along with producing reports for that country’s national oil company.

“I’ve seen the transportation, medical systems and social systems improve in Morocco,” he said.

Compared to Algeria, there’s a big contrast in tourism and the export of mineral deposits. Phosphate is a big export from Morocco, he said.

“What I’ve seen is a slow recovery,” Warme added, “from the departure of the French when they first gained independence to a rapid recovery in later years and a dramatic increase in the middle class.”

Warme, who received AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award in 2005, noted that in Morocco the Berbers dominate in the rural and Atlas Mountain areas, and there is a large Jewish population as well within the old cities. He noted that the Berbers herd sheep and goats in Morocco.

“Morocco is a tourist paradise because of the ancient cities with their medieval markets and the royal cities of Fez, Marakech and Rabat,” he said. “You can go from the coastal areas in the mountainous areas and then drop into the desert – tourists do mountain treks and camel rides in the desert.

“You see some of that in Algeria,” he added. “You can fly straight from Paris to the desert to look at the Tassili area and its deep canyons. It’s a flat-topped area with deep canyons cut into it.

“You can look at the evidence of pre-Egyptian cultures,” he said, “the rock paintings and carvings.”

Meanwhile, oil and gas commodities far outshine all other commodities in Algeria, where the country’s gas pipelines connect it to Europe.

“It’s a prosperous country,” he said.

‘A Fantastic Example’

Warme spoke earlier this year at a meeting of the Denver International Petroleum Society discussing the geology and culture of the area.

At the start of his talk, he displayed a map of North Africa and asked attendees to point out the areas where they have worked in that region. Many attendees had spent time in North Africa, some starting work there as far back as the late 1950s.

Warme himself first went to Morocco in 1973 to help reinterpret the geological history of the country in terms of plate tectonics. At that time he was teaching at Rice University in Houston and was participating in a joint academic program headed by the University of South Carolina and working with Morocco’s Ministry of Interior.

“My initial interest was in looking at trace fossils,” he said. “They’re biogenic sedimentary structures in deepwater limestones, and I was studying those elsewhere. So I went over to Morocco to look at those and I realized that the High Atlas Mountains were a fantastic example of inverted rift basin.

“I went back the next year and started looking at the entire basin, from one shoreline out into the deep water and central baseline platform and then out to shoreline again,” he said.

Later, while teaching at the School of Mines, he secured support from the National Science Foundation to return to Morocco and examine the area in more detail.

“That resulted in one of the first North African field trips that AAPG ever sponsored,” he recalled.

The Land Before Time

In the 1980s and 1990s Warme led AAPG educational field seminars to Morocco. Since then he has continued to run field trips to the country, bringing students there from the School of Mines, and he has worked with oil companies and some Moroccan symposia there.

He first went to Algeria in 1992.

“I was running an AAPG field seminar in Morocco and there were some Algerians at the seminar. They asked me if I’d be interested in doing a similar seminar there, moving from Jurassic limestones in Morocco to Paleozoic sandstones in Algeria,” he said.

Warme went to the southeast part of the country in the Tassili, famous for its geology and archaeology. He was later invited to stay on and take a field trip up through north Algeria through Paleozoic sandstones.

“I saw how interesting it was and thought we could do a field trip for AAPG there,” he said.

He later returned to Algeria (1993) for a much more detailed tour in the Tassili area.

“The part of Algeria where we worked was a flat lying area or craton. The rocks are relatively flat lying and there are a lot of unconformities in sections and stratigraphic sections are rather thin. And those were sandstone. They highly contrast with the rift carbonates that we worked on in Morocco,” he said. “Those are generally thicker sections and a whole different environment.”

Meanwhile, he had gone on safari in Tanzania and climbed Mount Kilamanjaro, seeing animals in east Africa.

“In Algeria I saw the rock carvings of some of those same animals who had lived in that area some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago,” he said.

“I had just seen all these animals alive in east Africa – ostriches, giraffes, elephants, antelope, lions, rhinoceros – and then I saw these fantastic drawings and rock carvings in Algeria, where the same animals had lived before it turned to desert.”

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