Conversations for Our Earth
M. Ray Thomasson

Have you ever met someone for the first time, told them you are an earth scientist, and seen their eyes light up? People want to know about the Earth around them. During a recent trip to Italy, members of my family met with members of another family after we had all been to Pompeii for the day. They asked whether earth scientists could predict volcanic eruptions.

I explained that some earth scientists study the seismic activity around volcanic regions and can use that information to predict that a volcano is about to become active. But, I added, it is not yet possible to predict exactly the day and hour in advance, although scientists are working on it. For example, I told them, Vesuvius covered Pompeii in A.D. 79 with 21 feet of volcanic ash in three days. It last erupted seriously in 1944 and so is potentially still active. Two days later, an article in the International Herald Tribune was headlined, “Vesuvius is ready to blow, warn scientists.” Then came the sensational part that would get the public’s attention (it certainly got mine): “This time it could kill as many as a million people in the first 15 minutes.” I am certain that if my audience that day read the same article on their way back to England, they gained considerable respect for the value of the work earth scientists do.

I was able to communicate earth science concepts to one group of people that day. Earth scientists can communicate what they know about Earth one conversation at a time. But how do we communicate with many people all at once? How do we maximize the number of people who can begin to understand the planet the way an earth scientist does?

One strategy the American Geological Institute (AGI) is using to stimulate massive educational efforts around the United States and the world is Earth Science Week. Since AGI started this annual celebration of earth science in October 1998, Earth Science Week has generated activities in every U.S. state and more than a dozen countries. Through these activities, thousands of scientists, educators and youth leaders have reached millions of students and individuals. The success of Earth Science Week illustrates the enormous potential these programs offer for public education and shows the power of grassroots efforts. What began as an initiative by one organization, AGI, has evolved into hundreds of regional and local activities organized and led by individual earth scientists. It has also grown with support from many earth science societies. The scope of Earth Science Week has become larger than any one organization can manage.

Does it really matter whether people know about Earth? The best response is that we take better care of what we come to understand. We now know that we can cause Earth great harm, perhaps even make it inhabitable. Earth scientists invite everyone to explore Earth and in the process develop their own sense of relationship and caring. When enough people share these experiences, these values will become collective, and then anything will be possible: good policy, good laws and realistic views of resources. So the real question is: How do we ratchet up Earth Science Week? In this challenge lies a unique opportunity.

In 2000, I was fortunate enough to be president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG). AAPG has 30,000 members and 64 local and regional affiliated earth science societies scattered across the United States. AAPG and its members have participated in every Earth Science Week, and the AAPG Foundation has been a key supporter. But we have never fully used the power of AAPG’s size, partnerships and affiliated societies to really drive the growth of Earth Science Week. We have an unusual opportunity to bridge two earth science organizations, AAPG and AGI, and promote a program that nurtures Earth Science Week.

Might it be possible to connect AGI Earth Science Week materials and planning with all the AAPG affiliated societies in the United States and its partners abroad? These affiliates are local and regional, and that is where Earth Science Week activities must occur: in schools, libraries, planning commissions, community organizations, newspapers — the list of opportunities goes on. This effort, of course, should include the divisions and associated societies of the Geological Society of America (GSA) and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, also strong Earth Science Week supporters. And we can better leverage the support of the Association of American State Geologists and other societies in order to reach into every state.

Taking this grassroots concept a step further, we can also harness the outreach power of Earth itself. The family I met in Italy was fascinated by a local wonder, Mount Vesuvius. Similarly, people become interested in Earth when they experience or see one of Earth’s amazing phenomena. This focus on local earth science is a basis of AGI’s high school curriculum EarthComm, or Earth Science in our Communities. It is also the reason why the participation of the National Park Service in Earth Science Week is especially valuable. The Park Service sponsored many Earth Science Week activities in national parks last year. Also, it runs the year-round Geologist-in-the-Parks Program, to place geologists in temporary and permanent positions. Working with GSA, the Park Service also sponsors GeoCorps AmericaTM, a program that places geologists in temporary positions with national parks. Both programs ensure that more visitors to national parks can use the outdoors as a natural laboratory for learning earth science.

Earth scientists have the responsibility to inform others why Earth is so wonderful and how each of us can help keep it that way. Whether you are a member of the earth science community or you are a member of the interested public, let’s get together. We earth scientists want to share our enthusiasm and interest for the physical world around us. Let’s all participate in Earth Science Week in some way. And let’s continue the process in the many other venues our creative minds can develop. We all have this responsibility.

Thomasson is the president-elect of the American Geological Institute.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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