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And now for Geodiversity

September 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Murray Gray in Challenge

Murray Gray looks at a new nature conservation initiative

Some people I talk to have never given much thought to the idea that there might be such a thing as non-living, abiotic nature. Yet about 30% of all Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the UK are designated for their geological rather than biological interests. Biodiversity conservation has become a widely recognised concept; but it is now time to give more thought to valuing and conserving the geological diversity or geodiversity of the planet.

We live in a very geodiverse world. There are, for example, around 5000 named minerals in the world, some of them extremely rare. These minerals combine to form thousands of different igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. Weathering and other processes turn these rocks into soils and the United States alone contains around 19,000 named soil types.

As well as weathering, a diversity of processes act upon the rocks, including wind, water, waves, glaciers and frost action to produce a stunning array of landforms and landscapes from the Grand Canyon to the Norwegian fjords, from Ayers Rock to the Matterhorn, from the Sahara Desert to Antarctica. Most of us probably take for granted this planetary and local geodiversity.

This geodiverse world is of value both in its own right but also in utilitarian ways to human societies. For example, the physical features of the landscape help to give us a sense of place; some like Ayers Rock, have spiritual value and many have inspired artists, poets and writers. Many sports take advantage of the physical environment, including skiing, potholing, whitewater rafting, mountaineering and surfing. A recent survey by the BBC of the top 50 places "to see before you die" was dominated by physical features including four waterfalls (the Angel, Niagara, Iguaca and Victoria Falls).

The mineral resources of the planet have been exploited for millennia for energy (coal, oil gas, uranium) industrial raw materials, metals, gemstones and building materials. The geological and fossil record allows scientists to establish the history of the planet and how it might respond to climate change. And most importantly, without a geodiverse world there would be much less biodiversity since it is the variation in altitude, aspect, physical process, soil type, hydrology, etc. that provide the habitat variation where plants and animals can thrive and evolve. Geodiversity is therefore the life support system for biodiversity.

And just as there are threats to the world's biodiversity so it is with geodiversity. Although rocks might seem to be much more robust than plants and animals this is not always the case. Cave formations or rare minerals can be removed by visitors collecting souvenirs, delicate landforms can be ploughed out and rivers can be altered by engineering works. A very wide range of human activities can destroy, damage or pollute natural physical features or processes.

The normal response when something of value is threatened is to try to conserve it. This has traditionally been done by drawing boundaries around protected areas and restricting access or activities within these boundaries. So it is with abiotic nature. There are some physical features that are designated as World Heritage sites, including the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and the recently recognised Jurassic coast between Poole and Exmouth on the south coast of England. Many national parks are at least partially designated for their physical features. The world's first national park at Yellowstone in the USA was promoted primarily for its geothermal features including the famous Old Faithful geyser.

Many other types of protected areas exist including Heritage Rivers in Canada, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Regionally Important Geological Sites (RIGS) in Britain and National Monuments in the USA.

However, conservationists have recognised for some time that this 'protected areas' approach, although helpful, is not sufficient to conserve all that is important in the natural environment. For example, there is little point in protecting an underground cave if the rivers flowing into it are heavily polluted. Instead, we need to manage the whole catchment area in order to protect the cave.

This idea of a whole landscape approach to nature conservation has certainly been recognised by the statutory nature conservation agencies in the UK who have divided the country up into a continuous series of 'Natural Areas' or 'Natural Heritage Zones' on the basis of geology, topography, hydrology, soils, vegetation, etc. Below this, the Landscape Character approach is being used to further subdivide the country into landscape units whose character can then be recognised and protected to conserve local landscape distinctiveness. For example, remodelling a golf course into a series of mounds, ridges and hollows would be inappropriate in a flat fenland landscape.

One of the ways that local authorities can take the geodiversity starting to benefit from funding from the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund. As well as the County Council and RIGS Group the partnership approach also involves English Nature (EN), the Geologists' Association (GA) and the local Wildlife Trust (BBOWT).

Once finalised, LGAPs need to be regularly monitored and updated and should be cross-referenced and embedded in other regional and local authority plans including LA21 Action Plans, Community Strategies and Local Development Documents. They should become an important part of protecting the geology, landforms and processes for which the UK is famous and justifiably proud.