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MY SCIENCE

Richards team

One of the great privileges of being an active scientist is the people that you get to work with. Apart from Julie who runs the lab with me I also work with two other great people; my post-doctoral colleague Santo Bains and my graduate student Sarah-Jane Schmidt. You'll have seen Santo on the Channel 4' documentary that we did with DOX productions "THE DAY THE OCEANS BOILED" talking about the work that we've been doing over the past few years.

Santo and I have been working for four years now on the problem of the boundary between the Palaeocene and Eocene eras of Earth history. This very short interval of time occurs ten million years after the dinosaurs got wiped out by that marauding asteroid. So that places the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary at precisely 55 million years before present, or as geologists like to express it: at 55Ma. At this time the world warmed by 8°C and the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere rocketed up by several tens of gigatons. For years there was no explanation as to what could have caused this but now it seems that that excess carbon came from the strange and enigmatic formations in the ocean known as methane hydrates - frozen molecules which trap methane. Under certain circumstances these molecules can be released back into the atmosphere. Since methane itself is a potent greenhouse gas this started an episode of global warming that has no parallel in the Earth's history except one: the present day! Our papers were published in SCIENCE and NATURE.

Sara-Jane Schmidt just joined my lab last year and she is a wonderful asset. Like Santo she's interested in climate change in the remote geological past but her era is much more ancient than the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary. Sarah is interested in Silurian rocks - some 421 million years before present (421 Ma) - during the first great era of life on Earth, the Palaeozoic. This was a time when the first land plants were becoming established but before we had anything like the great forests and fields that we have today. It was a time before the first land animals had even ventured out of the ocean. It was the true dawn of modern life. Just before we launched ARCHITECTS OF ETERNITY I and my friends at Headline Book Publishing took a group of book sellers up to the Silurian rocks of the Welsh Borderlands near Ludlow to show them some of the stuff that I was writing about in my book. We had really great couple of days as you can see from the photos.

Richards team in action  
   

The quarry that you see on the left is one of the best exposures of the boundary between the Wenlock and the Ludlow epochs of Earth history that you are ever likely to see. It is also one of the most fossil rich localities that I have ever come across. Everyone went home with something!

I'm also working with Alain Preat and Johan Yans in Belgium on the consequences of what is one of the most poorly understood asteroid impacts in the history of life - the so-called "Alamo impact event" some 380 million years before present. Our first paper on this subject is due out soon. Check back here soon for the reference!

If you are interested in the history of the Earth, its climate and its life and you are planning to study geology, do check out my Department's web site at www.earth.ox.ac.uk. If you have a first degree in a science subject and are interested in joining me for D.Phil studies in Oxford do drop me a line via the Assistant Administrator of the Department of Earth Sciences: gillian.galloway@earth.ox.ac.uk

All the best.
Richard

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk