Polar Podcasts

05: Brian Upton: Mapping the unusual alkaline rocks of the Gardar Province

August 11, 2020 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 5
Polar Podcasts
05: Brian Upton: Mapping the unusual alkaline rocks of the Gardar Province
Polar Podcasts
05: Brian Upton: Mapping the unusual alkaline rocks of the Gardar Province
Aug 11, 2020 Season 1 Episode 5
Julie Hollis

In this episode, we hear more from Brian Upton, Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh, about working on the unusual alkaline igneous rocks of the Gardar Province in in South Greenland in the 1950s and later.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we hear more from Brian Upton, Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh, about working on the unusual alkaline igneous rocks of the Gardar Province in in South Greenland in the 1950s and later.


05: Brian Upton – Mapping the unusual alkaline rocks of the Gardar Province

Based on interviews held on January 14–15, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland

Note: Polar Podcasts are designed to be heard. If you are able, please listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that is not evident in the transcript.


Brian 0:01

And it got really rough. We got to a stage where you lost all visible contact between sea and air. There was nothing except moving water. And then we er, took a big one, green, which er smashed the window in the wheelhouse. My first thought was, I haven’t written a will.

Julie 0:19

Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.

In this episode, we hear more from Brian Upton, Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh, about working on the unusual alkaline igneous rocks of the Gardar Province in in South Greenland in the 1950s and later.

Brian 1:00

In 1955, one was doing a geological exploration but it was also, because it really was very, very small scale, one was simply doing exploration because one was going to places where no Inuit with any sense would ever want to go. And er, even the Geodetic survey hadn’t really bothered about an awful lot of it. 

Julie 1:21

The Geodetic Survey was the Danish authority responsible for making topographic maps.

Brian 1:27

I went out on an engines-aft general coaster across the Atlantic, a real pirate ship, very happy when it got sunk in the Suez Canal a few years later, transferred to a smaller boat and there I met a Dutchman, Jan Bondum, who was a very important figure in my life. And we got to Ivittuut, which was the main base for the survey at that time. The cryolite deposit was beginning to run thin.

Julie 1:54

Cryolite – a rare sodium aluminium fluoride mineral – was mined in South Greenland from the 1840s to the 1990s. Particularly during the Second World War, the cryolite mine was was strategically important as cryolite was used as a reagent for processing aluminium ore, which was used in manufacturing Allied fighter planes.

Brian 2:14

So we were looking for more cryolite in the hope that my mountain might be one of the places that er yielded the stuff. They had several other boats there including the survey’s flagship, the Stenstrup. And they had engaged a nineteen year old student, just finished school, as their cook. Bodil Warbek-Massen, who I met and er, subsequently married. They took Henry and me out to the field, a load of boxes and tents and put us above high water mark with the er, essentially instructions, ‘Don’t fall off and don’t fall in. And if you have any problems, there’s an Inuit community about four miles along the coast. You can go and have a chat with them.’ Big box of medical kit. Bodil was required as interpreter. Went through all these bits and pieces. Ah, the morphine. Yes, if one of you falls and break his back and is in intense pain, you inject him here and so on with this and what’s this? Oh, that’s the amputation saw in case it gets really tricky. Thank you.

I first saw Kuunnat in bad weather.

Julie 3:28

Brian looks shocked.

Brian 3:30

‘Mummy! I’ve made a bad choice.’ It was nothing but um blue-black rock disappearing into the clouds with a thousand waterfalls coming out of it. I think this is a bit more rock than I can chew. 

Kuunnat absolutely astounded me because I’d been brought up on Skærgaard and the first thing you realise after a few days or so of working was that er, it was a layered syenite complex.

Julie 3:58

A syenite is like a granite, but with little or no quartz.

Brian 4:03

Many of the features that I’d been brought up about on in Skærgaard I found absolutely reproduced in these silly rocks and much more siliceous. After two or three years it turned out that er Kuunnat had essentially three components, syenite pluton A, syenite pluton B, and then a ring dyke that was almost three hundred and sixty degrees around the whole lot. And these went from the most highly evolved, the most highly evolved trachytes. It just got more basic, which was, in those far off days this was all very fun.

Henry Emeleus was a master in the field, an absolutely superb mapper. Henry was a student from Queens University, Belfast, nearly four years older than me so much more mature and also knew a hell of a lot about rocks and I think I learned more about igneous rocks from him than I had done as four years as an undergraduate student or anywhere else. And he became my big brother for sixty years.

He’d learned his trade from J.E. Ritchie with the Survey, one of the famous British Geological Survey people. So I could not have had a better teacher. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that anything that Henry could see, I could, if I tried hard, ten minutes or so later. And we thought, ‘Well let’s go have a look at Grønnedal-Ika’.

Julie 5:28

The Grønnedal-Ika complex is a suite of rocks mainly comprised of syenite and carbonatite. Carbonatite is an extremely unusual alkali-rich volcanic rock. Only one active carbonatite volcano exists in the world today – Ol Doinyo Lengai, in Tanzania.

Brian 5:45

So we spent some time on that. This is getting on to 1957. And the survey recognized that Henry had outstanding talents as a field worker and gave him a contract at Grønnedal-Ika, probably the most complicated bit of ground in the whole of the Gardar Province because it turns out to be the oldest, almost certainly over one point three giga years.

Julie 6:10

That’s one billion, three hundred million years old.

Brian 6:13

Grønnedal looks like in complete contrast to Kuunnat fjeld. Absolutely fascinating and er, I was also absolutely er, consumed by the aesthetic beauty of these rocks. I’ve never come across rocks which were quite so fresh as those that we were dealing with in, in the Gardar. It was only later that I started to realise that these rocks were extraordinary because they’d been crystallised getting on for a quarter of the age of the planet and absolutely nothing had happened to these except that they had been elevated. Then they had been wiped clean by the Pleistocene ice sheets, which had had the decency already, a few thousand years ago, to start retreating and leave these absolutely clean as er geofossils.

Then the survey moved its base from Ivittuut, moved south or mostly east to um Narsaq, to a delta area there, Dyreness. 

Julie 7:11

And what was it like to do field work in South Greenland in those days?

Brian 7:15

55, 56 and so on we’d have a couple of tents. We’d have a, a big ridge tent, our main living quarters – living, eating, drinking, sleeping. And we’d have a spare tent as a, a store tent and as an emergency tent. There was no radio. We’d be given little mirrors to try to signal. But otherwise, as I say, we were really just told to look after each other and to not fall in or fall off.

Later on, with the helicopters we then had a, a twice daily radio call up. It would be 8 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening, something of that sort. And they would take no notice if you didn’t, if you missed one of them. But if you missed a couple of them they’d probably say cuss and bother, we’d have to send somebody out to have a look.

In early days, extremely adequately fed. Loads and loads of tinned stuff. We’d be given white bread, we’d be given er rye bread. When all the white bread had turned black or green you’d switch to the rye bread. Er, when the rye bread started turning green you’d just cut that down til you had nothing left which wasn’t mouldy. And you reckon that was probably about the end of the season. The great thing was they’d give us, in the early days, they’d give us a side of bacon, which you’d hang up on a tent post and took a strip of that and that was great. I never, ever had any complaint. Oh, the other thing, we had a, a line with a hook on the end of it.

And I don’t think you would have seen this ever in Greenland, but cod fish swam past any point in tons. You could stand and watch cod fish passing by as long as you were prepared to stand and watch. There was any amount of fish. But that was in 55. By mid 1960s, you would have to stick around waiting for a cod fish.

Julie 9:09

Toward the late 1960s the cod fishery in Greenland saw a dramatic decline because of a combination of overfishing and environmental changes.

Brian 9:19

But they always reckoned, oh well you’ll never go short or hungry, as long as you’ve got a hook and, and a line. Well, my dear friend Henry and his mate Harry, they were up in the Igaliko mountains at about twelve hundred metres or so when they got stuck one night and er, they went to get their emergency backup and they found they just had a line and a hook and er, wasn’t a great deal of use at that height.

During radio call-ups at 6 o’clock every evening, there’d be a round up to see if anybody had any needs, any problems. And er, Juan Waterson said er, “Do you need any more proviant.” He said, “Er, yes,” he said, “we’re down to um, six bottles of tomato ketchup and one field assistant. Please send more assistants.” And he got an official, not a court-martialing but er, Ellitsgaard-Rasmussen,

Julie 10:13

The head of the Geological Survey of Greenland at that time

Brian 10:17

was very cross about that because these came out publically er by all the fishing boats and villages around. He didn’t wish GGU to be regarded as a laughing stock.

Every now and again you would have a storm. Adrian Finch invited me to join him on Motzfeldt, which is a four thousand foot plateau, very, very stony. And I said, “No Adrian, I think I’d rather work on Tugtutoq.” I gave him a phone at the end of the season. I said, “How did it go Adrian?” He said, “Oh, not good Brian, not good.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “We had a storm, blew the tents away. And er there’s a small lake up there, it normally just blows the lake over us. But this time it, the wind was from the other side and it blew everything into the lake.”

My nearest call was 1970. I was with my brother-in-law in Tugtutoq and we had a rendezvous with one of the ships off the north coast, in Bredefjord, And we could see over inland ice that it was turning colours. So the skipper was in a hurry to, to get us on board and get us back, I don’t know, four hours or so back to Narsaq. And it got really rough. And we had the one dinghy on the side of, on the davits on the side. But er, if that had filled with water, it would have capsized the ship, so we had the plugs out of that. After a time it got so rough down below in the hold that everybody decided to be up in the wheelhouse. And it was getting really rough. We got to a stage when you lost all visible contact between sea and air. There was nothing except moving water. You couldn’t see the top of the mast. And then we er, took a big one green, which er, smashed the window in the wheelhouse. We were then up to our ankles, at least, in seawater. And at that stage we lost way, couldn’t go into the waves anymore. We were swung round in the troughs. And I thought, ‘Oh, bother.’ My first thought was, ‘I haven’t written a will. I’m not going to get out of this, I’m going to die in a minute.’ But um, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story if we hadn’t. We got back to Narsaq, but I think we were on board in the harbor three days before the wind and the waves slackened enough to get on to shore. So there were storms now and again.

Julie 12:37

In the late 50s, Brian moved on to one of his great loves of the Gardar Province, the Gardar dykes, which he continues to work on today.

Brian 12:45

Helicopters were first introduced in 1958 with Danish pilots. And two of the senior members, senior men, Jan Bondum and Aske Berthelsen, took a reconnaissance flight one day. They flew westwards, this big island out to the west, archipelago. And er, came back and Jan Bondum was seething with excitement. “Brian, we’ve seen the most wonderful things there. Dykes. You’ve never seen anything like it. They’re giant dykes! Things a kilometre, nearly up to a kilometre wide across that place! And we flew over somewhere which we, it looks a crescent, a blue crescent. We called it the Blue Moon lake, the blåmånesø,” he said, “You’ve got another Gardar Complex out there, you know.” I had been working on Ilimaussaq but I said to Elitsgaard Rasmussen, who was the director of the survey and who was out there at the time, I said, “Could I go out and have a look at these things?” and um he sent me out with, Stephen Moorbath.

Stephen came out with me and er, yes, a wonderful, wonderful playground. And the world has got many, two dozen if we really stretched it, big, big dykes around the world. The grand-daddy of them all is the Zimbabwean Great Dyke at thirty kilometres across. There are big ones around the place but they’re all tholeiites.

Julie 14:06

Tholeiites are the most common chemical type of basaltic rocks.

Brian 14:11

And very largely you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the lot. They’re all very, very, very similar. The two giant dykes events in the Narsaq region are different. They are very much more enriched.

Julie 14:23

What this means, is that the rocks are enriched in elements that don’t easily fit into the crystal structure of most minerals – elements like the rare earth elements, zirconium, and uranium.

Brian 14:33

The giant dykes of the, what I call the southern rift of the younger Gardar, are geochemically unique. And I think they are an absolutely fundamental, critical part of the story. I’ve asked people around the people. They say, “Brian, that doesn’t come out of any normal mantle”.

Julie 14:51

Normally, layered magmatic rocks are formed by melting of the Earth’s mantle, which is the largest part of the layered interior of the Earth, beneath the Earth’s crust. But modelling of the chemical composition of the rocks in the Gardar Province in South Greenland shows that it wasn’t normal mantle that melted to form these rocks. Whatever was the source that melted to form these rocks was something extremely unusual.

Brian 15:14

I was thinking this morning, listening to a talk on the radio about, a woman talking about dinosaurs and she said, “We can only know a terribly little teeny weeny little bit.” We have to try to extrapolate in our imagination what it must have been like. And this is what one does really in any branch of science. One can only nibble on the fringes. Everything we do on Ilimaussaq, for example, just opens up more problems. The Gardar Province, sensu latu, the damn lot of it, will keep people busy, if they’re interested in doing these things, into the far future. You can never stop. There’s always more to be known. 

Julie 15:49

I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.

Julie 16:00

In the next episode, we hear from Emeritus Professor Kent Brooks about the discovery of a crashed American Naval aircraft in east Greenland in 1966.