Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Panama Canal Expansion Boon To Geologists Palaeontologists

Natalie Angier has an article in the NYTimes on the treasures being unearthed by the massive Panama Canal Expansion project. Teams of geologists and palaeontologists are getting access to fresh exposures that are usually not available in the thickly forested and deep soil tropical areas. Panama geology is very tricky, fragments of several plates have been plastered together over the eons to create a mishmash of terrains and new deep exposures will help in gathering data and improving understanding of Panama's dynamic history.

These days, Mr. Rincón and scores of other scientists are digging as fast as they can in the shadows of the really big dig that is the Panama canal expansion program, the most ambitious overhaul to the complex array of locks, channels, dams and bridges since the canal was built a century ago.......

.....Speed dating for scientists has already borne fruit. Through analyzing more than 2,000 fossils, the stratigraphic record revealed by each new rock cut, paleomagnetic data, isotope ratios, carbon signatures and more, researchers are getting a sense of what an ancient tropical rain forest looked like.

There has been a long history of spinoff's for geologists from major engineering projects. Way back in late 1700's England, canal builder William Smith was inspired by the geology exposed along the new canals which were being built to transport materials from factories to markets. He then embarked on his epic mapping project of England, an endeavour that virtually formalized the science of mapping and geology.

Engineering projects of this scale do reveal the hidden geology by exposing previously inaccessible areas or depths but there is a downside to this. Many times it is hard or downright impossible to revisit these outcrops again. With the Panama situation these outcrops will be drowned once the canals are completed and adjacent slopes being reforested will make working conditions in the viscinity of the canals difficult in the few years. So this is a grab-while-you-can situation for the scientists present but with no provision for a second look for validation.

This is going to be a good test I feel of the methods and technology being brought to bear on creating an accurate and representative archive of Panama geology. There will be records available through photos, outcrop descriptions and samples (will gigapans help? ). But nothing beats having the actual outcrop in front of you.

That option which has fortuitously opened up for scientists is going to be lost soon.

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