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Dark Nature - study trip in Mauritania
January 2004

Dr.Antony R. Berger - Co-Director IUGS Geoindicator Initiative 528 Paradise St., Victoria BC V9A 5E2, CANADA Phone/Fax:(250)480-0840 E-mail:

Suzanne Leroy (left), the Dark Nature project
leader, and Barbara Sponholz watch Stein-Erik
Lauritzen collecting a stalagmite for
paleoenvironmental analysis.
Remarkable lag deposits of chert nodules and
concretions around Kharga Oasis,Egypt.
(Photo by Jonas Satkunas)
Prof.Mohamed Ould Sabar of the University of
Nouakchott gives an overview of the geology
of Mauritania, during one of the outdoor
technical sessions.(Photo by Nick Brooks)
As evidence for abrupt environmental change grows,the task of assessing the effects of rapid geological processes is becoming more important. Increasing interest in tracking and reporting landscape changes that take place within a normal human lifetime is, thus, not surprising. IUGS continues to emphasize the importance of tracking rapid geological change in State of the Environment (SoE) reporting, national park management,long-term ecosystem monitoring, and environmental impact assessments. Using the geoindicator frame- work ( ) developed primarily for non-geologists, a series of workshops and related activities has been held over the past 5 years to disseminate the concept and to review and promote geological monitoring on local and national levels.

Last September, a geoindicator workshop was held at Assiut University, Egypt, to review current efforts and techniques to monitor changes in the region. Presentations were given on groundwater monitoring, the use of remote sensing methods for tracking rapid landscape change, the impact of cli- mate change on coastal areas, and related topics. One outcome was the formation of a working group to develop plans for tracking the effects of floods on coral reefs along the Red Sea coast, surface drainage in the Eastern Desert, the movement of dunes in the Western Desert, and other key processes. Participants in the field trip to Kharga Oasis visited sites where flash floods cause havoc to local residents. Other evidence of geological change was seen in the sand dunes that migrate across key highways, in playa and lag deposits, and in the effects of swelling clays and ground subsidence on built structures.

A second workshop was held in November at the national headquarters of Geoscience Australia in Canberra. The aim of this meeting was to discuss ways to raise the profile of geoindicators in parks and environmental management. Issues dealt with included the importance of geoindicators in Australia, what agencies are likely to take up and use geoindicators, how to spread the word,and potential sources of funding to bring about needed changes. Efforts are now underway to set up a national working group to promote geoindicator activities. Rapid landscape change was much in evidence, as a result of the disastrous wild fires that had swept the area in early 2003. The high temperatures caused much cracking and spalling of granite outcrops, and after the ground vegetation cover was burned off, streams became clogged with soil and sediment. Clear evidence can also be seen in soil profiles around Canberra of the rapid accumulation of hillslope sediments that followed the introduction of grazing cattle around 180 years. This triggered widespread gully erosion so that the sediment flux increased by a factor of more than 150, according to the work of R. Wasson and colleagues. Despite the current global trend to reduce government services, including many national efforts to monitor and assess environmental change, there are some encouraging signs. For example, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, now underway, is a huge effort to report on the condition of ecosystems globally ( ). Its primary focus is on biota and biodiversity, but many abiotic parameters are being reviewed, though some relevant geoindicators have not yet been included. In the USA, the National Park Service continues to use the geoindicator framework to identify geological processes of importance to park ecosystems and management. This process also includes scoping out the human in influences on landscape components. Ways to include geoindicators in monitoring the ecological integrity of national parks are also being developed in Canada. In Colombia, geoindicators are assisting in designing a national system to assess the environmental impacts of mining and quarrying.

The geoindicators framework is also proving helpful in understanding more fully the ways in which past settlements and societies have responded to rapid landscape change. This is being done in cooperation with a major international project entitled “Dark Nature–Rapid Natural Change and Human Responses” (see Episodes, December 2003, p326) and a similar effort by IGCP Project 490 (“The Role of Holocene Environmental Catastrophes in Human History ”). The goal is to inform current efforts to adapt and mitigate the landscape effects of climate warming. The first combined event was a field meeting in western Mauritania in early January 2004. This provided excellent examples of rapid changes along the Atlantic coast and in the Sahara around the ancient town of Chinguetti. Those new to the area were astounded by the wealth of Neolithic tools and pottery to be found among the sand seas, and by the rock art portraying animals typical of the savannah that existed here prior to around 6000 years ago. In addition to its on-going efforts to disseminate the geoindicator concept, the IUGS Geoindicators Initiative is launching a survey of current SoE reports in order to determine where geoindicators are now being used and where they might be inserted. The initial focus of this is likely to be on Europe where SoE reporting is now a fairly regular activity.

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