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Geosciences and Planet Earth

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Celebrate Geosciences and Planet Earth
Photo taken by dirac3000, Creative Commons

Earth is our home. Its rock layers and interactions with the atmosphere, hydrosphere (water and ice) and biosphere (plants and animals) have shaped the way humans live. Our civilizations, energy, resources, food and our health are all directly related to this wonderful planet. The study of those interactions and the underlying structure of the planets' systems is the realm of the geosciences, or more commonly called Earth science.

An often misunderstood science, Earth science is the culmination of ideas from physics, chemistry and biology which are used to understand the history and dynamic nature of our home planet. It is the unifying and holistic science which helps us to understand our past, present and future.

Come and join us in celebrating Geosciences and Planet Earth!


Earth Science Week 2009

Join geologists in the celebration of Earth Science Week, October 11-17! Earth Science Week is all about connecting with the natural world and learning about the geosciences

MLA Painted Desert2 6-8-06.jpg Meet Lee Allison and Mohi Kumar and comment upon their thoughts on CELEBRATING GEOSCIENCES AND PLANET EARTH!!

Lee Allison is the State Geologist of Arizona and Director of the Arizona Geological Survey, having held similar positions in Utah and Kansas. He previously served as Senior Policy Advisor on Science and Energy to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. He received the Public Service Awards from the American Institute of Professional Geologists and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the Tanya Atwater 'Encourage' Award from the Association for Women Geoscientists. He holds BA, MS, and PhD degrees in geology, and is active in building cyberinfrastructure for the Earth sciences. He regularly blogs at www.arizonageology.blogspot.com.

Lee was also one of the great folks who dreamed up this whole idea of COPUS and a grassroots celebration. So we are really excited to have him blogging this month!

Fresh cracks after an earthquake.

Mohi Kumar is a writer and editor for Eos, the newspaper of the American Geophysical Union. She holds a Bachelor's degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology, and Master's degrees in journalism and Earth science from Columbia University. Mohi has been fascinated by the Earth's landscapes since she was a little girl! Stay tuned for posts about natural hazards, sending humans back to the Moon, and touring the world's geologic landmarks.

Read Lee and Mohi's blog post

BOOM! by: Mohi Kumar

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens
Craving Violence the Geological Way

As citizens of this planet, we are surrounded by violence: homicide, genocide, war, erosion. Erosion?

While people are busy attacking each other, the earth is busy attacking itself. Tectonics, weathering, volcanism, plant growth, tidal motion, frost: all just euphemisms for destruction. Be it the surge of an earthquake ripping through the crust or the gradual break-up of rock into clay as chemical bonds sever, the forces of nature are at battle. Hurricanes churn oceans. Wind whips dunes into migration. Streams slice canyons. Aridity sucks once-fertile land dry, baking prairies into deserts. Lava smothers vegetation until new root systems grind rock into soil. Ebb-flow, freeze-thaw. The elements spar over our planet like contenders in a game of Risk. It is a war of encroachment, of hegemony, of inevitable stalemate: 4.5 billion years of fierce conflict.

Perhaps I became interested in the earth's dynamics to satisfy my need for violence. I'm not excited by mushroom-cloud explosions from the latest action-thriller or butchered corpses in a murder mystery. Instead, I camp, I hike, I travel. I visit sites of mass geologic destruction--the volcano in the Cascades with a mudslide, the earthquake in Alaska with tectonics, the glacier in the Canadian Rockies with its scour--there mesmerized by the earth's devastating power, intrigued by the whodunit of a landscape.

This reflection on the Earth's power reveals more subtle mysteries. While earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers have awesome power, even tectonically dead tropical places can be the setting for a thriller. My extended family hails from a small village in southern India, a flat region of lazy rivers and swaying coconut trees, of rice farm upon rice farm. These flooded paddies were once the site of ancient deluges as swollen rivers spilled their banks, leveled terrain, and made the land fertile. Imagine water everywhere, rushing into ditches, carving out channels, eventually gathering into sluggish pools. When I describe this to my cousins and aunts and uncles, they shake their heads. "Dirt is dirt," they say in Tamil. "Get seeds, add water, and things grow."

Rice fields in southern India

But I know that soil and earth is more. I know that children at the beach build sandcastles from the battered remains of boulders, the corpses of mountains. The mud that coats shoes during soggy weather had the suction power to pull flailing sabertooth tigers and mastodons into its suffocating bed, clogging their lungs with dirt. Ice can cool cocktails, but can also scar rocks, flatten hills, and etch valleys. The life-giving energy of the sun is fueled by the same fusion of hydrogen atoms that powers the deadliest weapons humankind has created.

Matter can never be created nor destroyed, but its form, its shape is always being created and destroyed. Bury and pressure-cook the sand in the children's castles, and after thousands of earthquakes it might once again crown a mountain or perch on a precipice, waiting to disintegrate into grains on its way back to the beach. Rimmed by subduction zones, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking; the Atlantic is widening, Africa is tearing apart at the Great Rift Valley, and my relatives' rice farms in India are slowly creeping towards the Himalayas. Even diamonds! DeBeers might say otherwise, but diamonds are not forever--without the extreme pressures of the deep Earth where they formed, they will revert back to carbon. Just give it a few billion years. We live in a dialectic of Mutually Assured Destruction--the creation of something guarantees its ruin.

I remember high-school history texts detailing the intricacies of war. But I also remember reading an article in science class about extinction. Sixty-five million years ago, a meteorite impact annihilated not just the dinosaurs, but 50 percent of all life on earth. Two-hundred-and-fifty million years ago, severe climate cooling, perhaps fueled by volcanic dust that blocked the sun, obliterated 95 percent of all marine life and 75 percent of all vertebrate life. Extinction events, both large and small, mark the geologic time scale. By numbers, these events were more catastrophic than the slaughter of races, the decimation of cities, the purging of the academic elite--all the horrors in which members of the same species killed each other. These geological events marked the complete destruction of species, genera, families, even orders and phyla--comparable to all mammals suddenly disappearing or all vertebrates dying. Whole branches of the evolutionary tree were cut, the dead wood dumped into peat bogs for paleontologists to unearth.

Gone were animals with names as eerie as their shapes: the five-eyed opabinia, with radial feathery fringes, a segmented body, and a protruding nozzle; the crawling wiwaxia, resembling an armored head encircled by equatorial spikes; the double-walled coral-like archaeocyatha that grew in shapes resembling ice-cream cones, martini glasses, multi-tiered candelabras. Hallucigenia, a worm-like creature with long tubular legs and equally long pairs of spikes ridging its back, coexisted with trilobites, a shelly scavenger with a crescent head and a lobster tail, and productid brachiopods which had stilt-like spines and cup-shaped bodies. The ocean 300 million years ago was a metropolis of corkscrew fenestellids, flower-petalled crinoids, spiral ammonite mollusk predators. A Dr. Seuss world of wondrous creatures, now extinct, the only evidence of their existence encased in mass graves of sedimentary strata.

My relatives in India do not understand this fascination when I inform them that I study the mechanics of the earth. The few who are more familiar with earth sciences want to know if there is much money to be earned in such a field. They ask this, waving their arms, their jewelry winking light patterns. In India, it is customary for women to adorn their necks and ears, for men to sport rings and watches made from hard-water waste products, the coronary plaque of underwater heat vents. Gold, slag, cholesterol--what's in a name? Same idea, different molecules. "It is fine to have an interest in rocks as a hobby," they say. "But where is the money?"

I stare at their diamonds, metamorphic carbon, pressurized biomass. Here are the wiwaxia and ammonites, the extinct corals dragged into quagmire, compressed, heated, now polished into glittering stones dripping from their ears. Millions of years from now, will a woman giddy with material possession clasp me around her neck?

But though they wear gold and diamonds and other precious stones dug from the earth, most of my relatives have no idea what the earth sciences are. My Tamil is rusty, so I resort to pantomime gestures and pictures--to no avail. Finally, I ask my father for the Tamil word for "earth." He tells me it is "bhoomi."

I smile to myself. Bhoomi. Boom. Exactly.

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