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Learning to read the fossil language

By Ines Morales - 30 Nov 2011 13:8:0 GMT
Learning to read the fossil language

Fossil snails known as turritellid gastropods; they're about 13 million years old; Credit: Shanan Peters

Caught as we currently are in a global ecological crisis - fast-tracked global warming that leads to a higher probability of extreme weather events; rapid environmental degradation with its associated loss of sustainable resources, scientific research that looks at the Earth as an interconnected whole, rather than a collection of separate parts, is more relevant and necessary than ever.

We need to figure out the butterfly effects, answer questions like the regional - or even global - impact of a particular outburst of volcanic activity, or the consequences of sea acidification for the health and stability of our entire planet. These puzzles are hard enough to solve when they refer to immediate conditions and we have readily available data. Imagine how much more of a hurdle they can pose when the study is conceived in terms of geological time.

The Earth has a past, and a very long one at that - with climate changes, shifting tectonic plates, extinction events... As any historian or social scientist would argue, knowing the past is an essential part of understanding the present or building a successful future. But when it comes to scientific research on the environment, our only clues come from the fossil record. And here's the question that has haunted countless scientists since the time of Darwin: just how accurate can the fossil record be, when it comes to things like weather cycles or the finer points of ecological health in the global environment?

Sedimentary rocks in the Grand Canyon, Arizona; they reflect patterns of long-ago seas

Sedimentary rocks in the Grand Canyon, Arizona; they reflect patterns of long-ago seas; Credit: Shanan Peters

An awful lot, as indicated by a recent study on the connections between changes on the chemical composition of the ocean, the fluctuations of sea levels, and the evolution of marine biodiversity in the last 500,000,000 years, published this month in the journal Science. The authors, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States and the University of Bergen in Norway, collected data from the fossil, rock, and paleo-environmental proxy records, and found ways to figure out how these different bits of information intersected, and how the events and processes thus recorded fit in with one another.

Beyond the new knowledge we have gained about the evolution of our oceans, this study makes a contribution to the scientific methodology used in paleo-environmental research. Above all, it proves that the fossil record can be a very good source of information on the Earth's past. It also reinforces another point we should never forget: every process and/or event in the Earth is part of a larger and much more complex mechanism. We must learn to see our planet as a whole, or we won't understand it at all.

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Topics: Fossils