Geology for Global Development

Guest Blog: Programme Review – Rise of the Continents

Helen Ashcroft is currently a DPhil student at the University of Oxford. She blogs for the Bang! Science Magazine (Planet Blog) and is also a STEMNET Ambassador, working to promote science, technology, maths and engineering to young people.  Helen has written for the GfGD Blog before, about career paths in the development sector and the economics of natural resources. Today, Helen reviews Professor Iain Stewart’s new BBC 2 series: Rise of the Continents.

Rise of the continents is the latest popular science offering from the BBC, having recently catered for astronomers with the Brian Cox programmes, and biologists with the David Attenborough programmes, they have turned their focus to the planet we live on. Professor Iain Stewart has been set the not insignificant task of selling the intimate details of rocks, minerals and tectonic plates to the general public.

The result is a four part series called ‘Rise of the Continents’, in which Stewart examines the processes and events that the Earth’s continents have been influenced by over their 4 billion year history – and he does so with incredible skill and flair. This program offers a unique insight into the day job of a geologist, which Stewart demonstrates by clearly explaining a range of concepts using the surrounding rocks and landscapes. He emphasises the long timescales and the large geographical extent over which geological processes occur and the myriad of knock-on effects which they can have.

The first program focuses on the oldest continent – Africa. Iain Stewart discusses not only how the continent formed and evolved to its present state, through the combination of several tectonic terrains, but also how the on-going plate movements mean that the shape of Africa is still changing. The continent that we know and love is being slowly pulled apart. Iain considers the impact that these tectonic processes have on life at the surface, from whale evolution to human development. Iain describes how mantle plumes can bring diamonds up to the Earth’s surface, providing many African countries with their natural resources and livelihoods. The chemical composition of the lavas produced by upwellings of mantle material causes hotspots of soil super enriched in nutrients, and so animals flock to specific regions to raise their young, resulting in intense farming in these regions. This first episode demonstrated the strong link between the geology of the African continent and way it has affected the lives of people living there.

The program is a must see for any geologist, geographer, biologist or adventurer worth their salt because of the combination of historical anecdotes, stunning views of a wide range of terrains and some really cool plate reconstructions. There is a fair amount of technical detail, but this program is really accessible to anyone who has ever wondered what makes the landscape and what we can learn from it.


You can catch the rest of Rise of the Continents on Sundays, 9pm, BBC2.

Rosalie was the Himalayas Programme Officer for Geology for Global Development and writer for the GfGD blog. She is a geochemist and a postdoc at the University of Oxford.