Monthly archives of “November 2015

Fossil leaf from Early Eocene New Zealand
comment 0

Five Degrees of Global Warming – The Leaf Fossils of Kakahu, New Zealand

Sometime in the 1980s my Prof, ‘JDC’ (Doug Campbell of the Otago University), showed me a box of spectacular leaf fossils that had been collected from Kakahu by Graeme Mason while “out rabbiting”. Kakahu is a farming district in the hills, a few kilometres out of Geraldine, in New Zealand. Leaf fossils had been known from the area at least since the regional geology was published some years earlier (Wellman 1953) and numerous New Zealand researchers know of the site. Some fossil pollen was figured by Ian Raine (1988) which enabled him to date part of the sequence as Paleocene (around 66 – 56 million years ago). Fossil ferns of the climbing genus Lygodium were described shortly after by Andrew Rozefelds of the Queensland Museum (Rozefelds et al. 1992).

The cliffs at Kakahu, New Zealand. A plant fossil locality.

The cliffs at Kakahu.

One of the leaf fossils from Kakahu, New Zealand.

One of the leaf fossils from Kakahu, New Zealand.





JDC and I made a trip to the area and collected leaf impression fossils from two localities. One was an old clay-pit (the fine clay was mined for items such as ceramic insulators) and the other a nicely exposed cliff with leaf-bearing rubble at its base (the evident source of Mason’s fossils). The outcome of this was a paper (Pole 1997) which described several leaf types and some conifers. Unfortunately, most of the leaves were just that – types. Although they looked like nice museum-grade specimens, they mostly lacked cuticle. This is the outer surface of the leaf that can provide tiny, but crucial information on what the leaf actually was. Fortunately, a few leaves did attached fragments of cuticle. In this case it led to identifying Lomatia – a protea that is not part of the indigenous flora of New Zealand today, but still grows in Australia.

One of the many types of fossil protea pollen from Kakahu, New Zealand.

One of the many types of fossil protea pollen from Kakahu, New Zealand.

The key person became an adjacent land owner, Ian Morrison. Ian was a tireless local historian and conservationist. He encouraged me to continue work at Kakahu and on subsequent trips he took me to the various outcrops he knew about – old coal mines, and patches of mudstone exposed in the beds of creeks, and facilitated access on other properties. The old clay pit JDC and I collected from quickly disappeared under the hooves of cattle. Some of the new sediment  Ian showed me looked like it ought to have well-preserved leaf cuticle. Based on the nice diversity – 18 different types of ‘broad leaf’ and five conifers,  I was expecting some sort of bonanza in cuticle diversity. Alas, it wasn’t to be. There was cuticle – but strangely, it was mostly all two species, a very bland laurel and a kahikatea-like conifer. Floundering a bit, I tried ‘Plan B’, and had a look at the pollen, and here things got interesting. There were some distinctly different assemblages – I could recognise the zones that had been established by Ian Raine for the Paleocene and Eocene (1984), but in-between there were samples that didn’t quite fall into either. There were lots of different types of protea pollen, as the leaves suggested. The other surprise was that charcoal was also abundant – lots and lots of it. This was a landscape that burned and burned, perhaps a bit like Australia today. There was a broad pattern to the fossils – lower down it was either conifer-dominated, or those bland laurels. But those higher up, there was a layer with diverse range of broad-leaved flowering plants with just scattered conifers. A conclusion was that the Kakahu sequence appears to cross the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, around 56 million years ago (Pole 2010).

A microscopic fragment of fossil charcoal from Kakahu, New Zealand.

A microscopic fragment of fossil charcoal from Kakahu, New Zealand.

The International geological time scale was cobbled together over a long time (around 200 years), by numerous scientists all over the world. The periods of time were proposed based on distinctive fossil content or local geology. Precisely nailing down the boundaries between geological periods is an on-going endeavour. But recognising a boundary raises the issue of – why is there at all? This line of questioning has led to some of the greatest advances in understanding Earth history. The Paleocene-Eocene boundary is now linked to a sudden c. 5 degrees C global rise in temperature. Strong suspicion for the cause has fallen on a massive release of methane into the atmosphere, although there are other hypotheses. The duration of the ‘event’ and its aftermath was very brief in geological terms – about 170, 000 years – but of key interest to me – the leaf fossils at the cliff site might have formed right in that critical time.

There are lots of things that the Kakahu fossil site might tell us. More recent collecting has increased the biodiversity even more. But the identity of most of the leaves is still unclear. Many of them are clearly not plants that live naturally in New Zealand today -some of the proteas for example. Some more cuticle would be most helpful. But Kakahu’s special interest is that its leaves may represent a forest that grew right at that time of massive global warming. It is well-established that there was rapid warming at that time and it is known how much the Earth warmed on-average. But it is fossil sites like Kakahu that can help answer the questions that come next – for instance, how much did it warm at New Zealand’s location?  When the Earth warms, it warms most towards the polar regions, some areas may even cool. Kakahu is today at about latitude 44 S, but 56 million million years ago, it may have been more like 50 S. More questions – did warming increase evaporation so that it got drier? Or did rainfall increase to compensate?  Why all that burning? These are questions, and answers, that can feed into science that is especially relevant today. Kakahu is a quiet spot, off the main road, but it’s one of New Zealand’s scientific treasures.

Sadly, the last time I dropped in to see Ian Morrison he told me he had a “spot of cancer”. He passed on just before I could send him the finished results of several years work.


Links on my references will take you to my page where you can download a pdf

Pole, M. S. 1997: Paleocene plant macrofossils from Kakahu, south Canterbury, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 27: 371-400.

Pole, M. 2010: Ecology of Paleocene-eocene Vegetation at Kakahu, South Canterbury, New Zealand. Palaeontologia Electronica 13, Issue 2; 14A:29p;

Raine, J.I. 1984. Outline of a palynological zonation of Cretaceous to Paleogene terrestrial sediments in west coast region, south island, New Zealand. New Zealand Geological Survey Report, 109:1-82.

Raine, J. I. 1988. In. Pocknall, D. T. and Tremain, R.  (Ed.)  Tour LB1, 7th International Palynological Conference, Brisbane, Australia, August 1988 New Zealand palynology and palaeobotany. New Zealand Geological Survey record 33: 90-92.

Rozefelds, A. C., Christophel, D. C. & Alley, N. F. 1992: Tertiary occurrence of the fern Lygodium (Schizaeaceae) in Australia and New Zealand. Memoirs of The Queensland Museum 32: 203-222.

Wellman, H.W. 1953. The Geology of Geraldine Subdivision. New Zealand Geological Survey Bulletin, 50:1-72.

comment 0

Would you like a beer? – Guests of the Kalimantan Police

Roni is a Batak. This is a christian tribe that lives in the Lake Toba area of the otherwise Muslim Sumatra. The Bataks are famous for their relaxed, easy-going, easy to get along with anyone nature. Roni is just the kind of guy a geologist wants as a partner, minder, and Mr Fix-it.

There was a new job to do – yet another old coal mine to look at, somewhere in the bush of Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. We flew from Jakarta, to the coastal city of Banjarmasin, met our usual driver, the muslim Halil, and headed in to the interior.

After several hours of driving along the usual deeply rutted roads, we met the local contact. He had arranged two motorbikes, and leaving Halil behind to find some accommodation for the night, we set off on the bikes (myself sitting behind the local guide. We bumped for a couple of hours along washed out dirt tracks, old logging and coal mining haul roads, and hair-raising jury-rigged and semi-derelict bridges (Featured image shows Roni and our guide at the end of one of these).

Bridges cobbled together from the refuse of logging. Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Bridges cobbled together from the refuse of logging.


Ye Gods!

In the late 1980s I read Eric Hansen’s wonderful book, ‘Stranger in the Forest’. He is reputed to have been the first westerner to walk across Borneo. Not liking what he saw when he made it to the southern, Banjarmasin side – he walked back again. What he saw was industrialisation. Especially rampant logging. By the time I got there, 20 years later, there had been two waves of extraction – logging and coal mining. This meant that vast areas of what had been rainforest, were now impenetrable masses or secondary growth. Ecologists would call it ‘moribund’ – it’s a sort of successional state, but is not going anywhere fast. It was in this kind of mess that we found the old coal mine. But there was little time to scout around before we had to turn back. Night comes quickly near the Equator.


Roni, standing by an old stockpile of coal.

Back at our vehicle, Halil told us he had not been able find anywhere to stay. Our guide told us ‘no problem’ – and just to follow him. He roared off into the darkness on his bike. For a good half hour we drove through the dark, plantations of rubber trees lit by our head–lights on either side. Eventually we pulled up in front of a large building. It was unlit and locked. We waited another half hour until someone came to open it. It was concrete construction, with an imposing facade, a central door that opened onto a central passage. Inside, there were rooms along each side of the passage. Each room was separated from the outer wall by a tiny bathroom, where there was a cold water hose and a cistern. In the bathroom wall was a single porthole, about 10 cm in diameter. These holes were the only ventilation for the building. We spent a putrid, mosquito-ridden night, each in his own humid room.

Next morning we found there was a little shop nearby, where we got some chicken and rice and coffee for breakfast. Waiting to go, I was sitting in the front seat of our vehicle reading some reports, when a vehicle stopped nearby. An occupant walked up to me, reached through the open window, and snatched the reports from my hands. Pre-empting an intemperate response from me, Roni, said “Mike it’s the police”. I pulled out my passport and my SKJ – the document allowing us to be in specific parts of Indonesia. After a lengthy discussion in Bahasa between Roni and the policeman, a problem arose. Why had we not checked in with the Police in the evening? Our honest response was, that we barely knew where we were let alone where the nearest police station was. That was all very well said the policeman, but now you will have to come to the police station to discuss this.

At the police station (it turned out to be just a few km away) Roni came into his own. For an hour there was a good-natured discussion between him and the police captain. Eventually, the captain turned to me and said, in English, “Time is money! You guys continue with your work, but you must come back to see us this afternoon at 4 o’clock”. And of course, they kept my passport.

We bumped our way back to the abandoned coal mine. I did my work, and we found a small shop to have lunch. It was run by a few kids and their mother, selling chicken and rice and tea, as well as all the highly processed and highly packaged food that is now flooding a land rich in healthy natural fruits.


The eldest child in a ‘bush shop’ pours us some tea – surrounded by various signs of Western influence.


Back of the shop – two of the kids, and their mother.



One of the kids – looking at another ‘Stranger in the forest’

Getting back to the police station we found five of them sitting cross-legged on the floor. They were going through my passport repeatedly, forwards and backwards, right way out and upside down – passing it from one to the other. The cheerful conversation between Roni and the captain continued. I sat and watched, and did my best to look non-chalant. Suddenly, the captain turned to me and said:

“Would you like a beer?”

From the police? Deep in muslim Kalimantan? What kind of set-up was this? But I said “Yes”, and the captain snapped his fingers. An underling got up, went outside, and returned with a crate of Guinness. As the conversation continued, I drank one while one of the policeman drank another. When I finished that one, the captain offered me another. I didn’t refuse.

Then the captain passed me his mobile phone. He asked me to make a recording, so that anyone who rang the police station would get my voice, in English, saying ‘Hello what can I do to help you?’ I did this, as the conversation went on. Then Roni turned to me:

“Mike, they want to know if we would like to see their baby deer?”

Me: “Uh….? …. Of course!”

And we followed them outside. In the yard, was a low wooden fence, and inside a small enclosure was – a baby deer! It’s mother had been killed in some accident, and the police were looking after it. At this point Roni whispered to me:

“Fifty dollars?”

“Yes” I said, “No problem”.

The police were overjoyed. As we left, the police stuffed the remaining nine bottles of Guinness into every pocket and hand of mine they could find. They also invited us for breakfast the next day – which we accepted.

With the beer and the breakfast, we figured we came out almost ahead. But the next time we ran into Indonesian police, we were not so lucky. We missed a ferry, which meant we had to spend a night in a city that was not on our SKJ. With unbelievable bad luck the hotel we chose had a policeman’s convention. Red-heads kind of stick out in Indonesia. It cost us a $200 fine.

And there was no beer.

comments 2

Chromite and Pine Forests – the closest I’ll ever get to the Old Syria

On March 21, 2011  I was sent to do a job in the far south-east of Turkey.  Me and Erol, my indispensable helper, met the local contact, dined, and were then driven far into the hills. I only had the fuzziest of notions where I was going – as no-one spoke a word of English and my Turkish was survival level only. We eventualy arrived at a Turkish military checkpoint and were duly let through. From there we were in what is basically the military zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. We drove south through the Nur Mountains and into an odd little corner of the Turkish outline. It’s a narrow, southward projection that encloses one side of the Gulf of Iskenderum – an inlet of the Mediterranean Sea.

We drove within a couple of km of the Syrian border – in a Kurdish-controlled area, then kept that on our left, 10-15 km off, before swinging back towards the west.  In a clearing surrounded by pine forest, we stopped. I was there to look at some old pits where chromite – the ore of chromium, had been dug up. Our guide showed us a couple of small pits by the vehicle, then I set off by myself to spend the day looking for more. I had my GPS to tell me where the boundaries of the exploration leases were – and it told me I was about 30-35 km from the Syrian border. In places where there was a view, I looked off to the east, and figured that was what I was looking at off in the haze. The Gulf was only nine km in the other direction.

The view to the east, through the Nur Mountains. Syria in the haze on the far side.

The view to the east, through the Nur Mountains. Syria in the haze on the far side.

For a geologist it was idyllic. Mongolia is vast and open, and it can feel like there are no secrets. It’s sun is harsh on a red-head. Indonesia is covered in rain-forest (or what’s left of it), great for botany, not so good for geology. But here I was walking through open pine forests. Not too thick that I couldn’t see rocks exposed, or the old pits, where someone had already dug up the easy-stuff. It wasn’t too hot or too cold, it wasn’t raining or blowing. Except for a couple of goatherds that wandered past, there were no other people. The scale of the landscape was just right. It was fine-grained enough that I could walk over ridges, amble around spurs, excited about what might be just around the corner. It felt like I was exploring an abandoned castle.

An old chromite pit in the pine forest, Turkey. See also the featured image.

An old chromite pit in the pine forest. See also the featured image.

In terms of the World Wildlife Fund Ecosystems, what I was in was ‘Southern Anatolian montane conifer and deciduous forests’  (Eco-Code PA1220). Geologically it was a sliver of rock thrust up from deep below the ocean floor – a little bit of the Earth’s mantle. This is where chromite typically comes from. The chromite was in layers, as distinct from ‘pods’. This meant that there was some continuity and coherency to it – and that, knowing the topography and how the beds dipped, a basic geological approach could work out how it was structured (Contrast that with ‘pod’ chromite, where it could run-out without warning. Dicey stuff to try and mine). It was a place that I thought had geological potential. With a bit of knowledge as to how the deposit was structured, it could be economic to go beyond the mere scratching that had happened so-far. Damn only having a day there! But I recommended another visit and looked forward to getting back and the chance to do it properly.

I don’t speak/read Turkish. No idea what this means. (:

Unfortunately that will never happen. Just over a week before, there were large protests in Damascus. Events took an ugly turn, and eventually spiraled into the Hell that has enveloped Syria now. The area that I was in is probably a rather unsavoury place now. A recent map shows the area on the Syrian side of the border to be occupied by the Jabhat al Nusra group (Apparently ‘moderate’ rebels who decapitate humanely). Other rebel groups and Kurds also occupy territory nearby. The map is hardly likely to be very accurate, and these ‘territories’ will not end at an arbitrary line on the map.

Route map. Our route (red line) superimposed on a current map of who-is-where in Syria ( Turkey is light grey, the other coloured regions are Syria. Red is Government-controlled, yellow is Kurdish, dark grey with the requisite black spots is Daesh/ISIS, and green is for other rebels.

Our route (red line) superimposed on a current map of who-is-where in Syria ( Turkey is light grey, the other coloured regions are Syria. Red is Government-controlled, yellow is Kurdish, dark grey with the requisite black spots is Daesh/ISIS, and green is for other rebels.

It could be worse. Daesh/ISIS-controlled territory is 55 km from where we turned south along the mountains. It’s the southern edge of the conduit where men (and the odd woman) and materiel flow from Turkey into Syria, and oil on the way back. The Russian base at Latakia is 120 km to the south, currently concentrating some of its efforts on targets about 80 km from where I was. But those idyllic pine forests will be crawling with everyone from ISIS wanna-bes going one-way to civilians fleeing the mess in the other. It’s going to be a long, long time, before someone like me has the freedom to wander there again, and do geology.