Polar Podcasts

08: Brian Upton: Beginnings of understanding plate tectonics, “a hell of an exciting time!”

August 18, 2020 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 8
Polar Podcasts
08: Brian Upton: Beginnings of understanding plate tectonics, “a hell of an exciting time!”
Chapters
Polar Podcasts
08: Brian Upton: Beginnings of understanding plate tectonics, “a hell of an exciting time!”
Aug 18, 2020 Season 1 Episode 8
Julie Hollis

In this episode, we hear more from Brian Upton, Professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, about his early years as a researcher when the theory of plate tectonics was being developed, his time at Caltech, in Iceland, La Reunion, and his experiences on returning to Greenland investigating plate tectonic links between in northwest Greenland and Arctic Canada.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we hear more from Brian Upton, Professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, about his early years as a researcher when the theory of plate tectonics was being developed, his time at Caltech, in Iceland, La Reunion, and his experiences on returning to Greenland investigating plate tectonic links between in northwest Greenland and Arctic Canada.

Transcript

08: Brian Upton – Beginnings of understanding plate tectonics, “a hell of an exciting time!”

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

Kennedy said well, “We’re going to put an American on the Moon in ten years-time”. Earth and planetary science at Caltech was in absolute and total upheaval over this. We didn’t know anything about interplanetary space. We knew nothing. And that’s when I got involved in all this early work on plate tectonics. It was a hell of an exciting time.

Julie 0:20

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, Professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, about his early years as a researcher when the theory of plate tectonics was being developed, his time at Caltech, in Iceland, La Reunion, and his experiences on returning to Greenland investigating plate tectonic links between in northwest Greenland and Arctic Canada.

Brian 1:11

about 1960, 61, 62, when the words plate and tectonics were only just beginning to be married together. People’d been finding funny things. They’d been working on deep ocean trenches. The Japanese found that as you chase these away from the trenches the earthquakes got deeper and deeper and deeper and, oo, ah, rocks away from the trenches get more potassic. Ah, Matty Thorpe and Bruce Heisen made the first adequate map of the mid Atlantic ridge. Other people, were looking at magnetic anomalies in east Iceland lavas. Other people from Cambridge geophysics were pulling magnetometers behind them across the Atlantic and finding the magnetic stripes. It was at that stage in the early 1960s. Harry Hess was interested in greenstone belts in the Appalachians.

Julie 2:10

Greenstone belts are metamorphosed volcanic rocks, often occurring together with sedimentary rocks. They are called greenstone belts because the metamorphic minerals in these rocks often give them a greenish colour. 

Brian 2:22

Ophiolites – good gracious, perhaps these are part of the story too. Perhaps these are bits of ancient ocean floor.

Julie 2:31

Ophiolites are indeed bits of ocean floor that have been pushed up onto the top of continental crust during plate tectonic movements at plate margins. All of these new observations were hinting at a new model for how the Earth works, that was finally resolved into the modern theory of plate tectonics – the understanding that the Earth’s crust is divided into discrete plates that move slowly over the Earth’s surface, driven by gravity and by convection in the underlying mantle, with new crust forming in the deep ocean at mid ocean ridges, and being destroyed at ocean margins where the oceanic crust is subducted beneath the continents, returning to the mantle beneath.

Brian 3:14

So by 1964, 65, – that was my early years here – 

Julie 3:19

At the University of Edinburgh

Brian 3:21

plate tectonics was universally accepted by everybody except the Soviet Union and its satellites. But it was a hell of an exciting time. Harry Hess pointed out to me, or one of his students did, that we knew nothing about oceanic islands apart from a bit about Iceland and a bit about Hawaii. But there were hundreds of the damn things. Harry Hess had spent his war hunting Japanese submarines in the Pacific but really just left his echo-sounder on the entire time and finding these thousands. The Pacific Ocean at that time, you know, it was deep water, you don’t know what’s down there, there’s mud at the bottom somewhere a hell of a long way down. He found all these flat-topped mountains all over the place. It was all new. Oceanic islands must have started a bit like this.

I thought, ‘Well I’d like to work on an oceanic island’. I spent a long time looking at, and started reading what the French had done about the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Goddamit, it seems to be just about a twin for the Hawaian volcanoes. You’ve got two volcanoes. One is active and relatively boring.

Julie 4:21

He's referring to the Hawaian volcanic islands.

Brian 4:25

The other one is deeply dissected and gives you everything from latest constructional surfaces down through the lavas, down through the hypabyssal complexes, down into layered intrusions, nearly two and a half kilometres down into its guts.

Julie 4:39

Brian is explaining here that because of uplift and erosion, the rocks at the surface of La Reunion show the whole cross section through the structure of the volcano through to the deepest parts of the magma systems that would normally be deep beneath the Earth.

Brian 4:55

Working on La Reunion, working on the Gardar Complex, I kept thinking oh, that relates to this, this relates to that. And it was working on stuff that one can see at the surface and deeper sections are what I’m looking at here. That took me to 1960, when I left GGU

Julie 5:12

GGU stands for the Geological Survey of Greenland

Brian 5:17

and went to Caltech. And that’s when I got involved in all this early work on plate tectonics, which was hugely fun because I got there virtually the same week, that um President Kennedy was um, made president and Sputnik was up there annoying the hell out of the Americans. And Kennedy said, ‘Well, we’re going to beat them. Well, we’re going to put an American on, on the moon in ten years time.’ And everybody said, it’s impossible. But anyway he really, it was like putting his foot into a termites nest and. Earth and science and planetary science at Caltech was in absolute and total upheaval over this. What the hell do we know about the moon? Somebody said, ‘Oh’, he said, ‘it was probably completely covered in diamonds because of all these high pressure impacts all the time on it’. And other people said, ‘You couldn’t even put a ladder down on it because it’s all soft stuff, you’re just going to lose it’. People were reading anything they could. It’s not very, very long ago we didn’t know anything about the atmosphere or about interplanetary space. We knew nothing.

Anyway, I was out of  a visa. I was married with a very small child. We were bust and visa-less so I was applying for a job anywhere on Earth. And again, my good fairy and in the end I got a letter from Fred Stewart here

Julie 6:37

At the University of Edinburgh

Brian 6:39

saying, “Brian, Michael Howell’s going to be at the geophysical lab for twelve months. If you want to try and control his students and hold his chair down for a year, it’s yours.” So after this, I went down the corridor to get the coffee and my work instructions were that I had to have the coffee for the staff ready at eleven o’clock every morning and I had to have tea ready at four o’clock in the afternoon. 

Julie 7:01

At this stage, Brian got involved in studying the plate tectonic links between Greenland and Arctic Canada.

Brian 7:08

Across the Pacific there were these enormous fault escarpments. What the hell were they? And it was Professor Tuso Wilson, in Toronto, that said, these things join up at the mid-Atlantic with the mid ocean ridges on the other end to trenches and do there intermeet and they’re the third stick in the plate tectonic puzzle. We’re going to, I’m going to call the transform faults.

Anyway, he had a student, Barry Clark came to Edinburgh as a PhD student and er, he said, “I know there are some basalts on the east coast of Baffin Land. Why don’t you go and look at those and see if they’re anything like those that have been described by Harold Drever and co on the west coast of Greenland?”

And I flew over to Canada to join him and we flew out through a series flights getting to US Air Force to one of the DEW Line bases, which had been set up around the Arctic to detect incoming, possible incoming Soviet missiles.

Julie 8:12

DEW Line stands for Distant Early Warning Line. These were a series of American radar stations, which stretched from Alaska through Arctic Canada, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland during the Cold War, to provide early warning of an attack.

Brian 8:28

And from there we er, went on a boat, an open whale boat with an Inuit, Poulusi and his thirteen year old son er, sailing southwards down the coast, in and out the fjords in collecting through each of the principle outcrops of the Baffin Land picrites.

Julie 8:49

Picrites are a type of basalt that form by large amounts of melting of the mantle, the largest, layered part of the Earth that lies beneath the Earth’s crust.

Brian 8:59

It was definitely the coldest season I’ve ever spent anywhere. All the time in an open whale boat, trying to pick your way between er, ice floes, trying to find breaks. Poulusi had learned such English as he had from the Americans, Blue West One, one of the DEW-Line bases. So, not very good English.

I can remember landing once with him, to see if we could see any way through the ice. We climbed up on top of a cliff and he pulls out a telescope. “Well Poulusi, do we see any way out?” And he just looks out and says, “Ice, no fucking good.”

We had quite a lot of trouble with pack ice. It was often difficult finding routes, clear water routes er, through them. And on one occasion and the ice had closed in, or was closing in, and we also found that we were taking on water. At least as fast as we could bail it we were taking water in  through the er, drive shaft. Poulusi saw a whaleback island, island made of gneisses. And we headed for it. And the five of us on board the whaleboat hauled the boat up as high as we could, which was not very high. The tides were strong. The ice was moving fast and we would certainly have been over-run by pack ice on the smooth island shore if we hadn’t got it up above ice level.

So we had a problem in what to do about the boat. Er, Poulusi um, walked up and down the beach for some time, smoking cigarettes until he found a suitable crevasse in the gneisses and he squatted down with a wobbly hammer and a cold chisel, about eight inches or so long. And he started drilling out a hole in the gneiss, using the crack as the er, basis for the er, the operation. And when he had made a hole deep enough to accommodate at least six inches of the chisel, with the chisel angled so that it was dipping back downwards towards the sea, he tried this with his hands and decided that the chisel was in sufficiently firmly for his purpose. He went back to the boat and found er, his block and tackle under the floorboards. And we got the tackle hitched up to the chisel that had been hammered in and were able to haul the boat high and dry up onto the ice.

We still had the problem of how to fix the leak. We er, look at the situation and there was a leather gasket around the drive shaft, which was er, really pretty broken and er, Poulusi was rather dismayed by the situation and I offered a solution. I took one of my boots off and cut the leather toe out of it, which cheered up Poulusi very considerably. We made a hole in this and made a new improvised gasket for the er, drive shaft.

But we had to spend some days on the island waiting for ice to clear before we could er, make further progress.

Julie 12:13

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

Julie 12:23

In the next episode, we hear more from Emeritus Professor Kent Brooks about the Skaergaard Intrusion, which became the focus of his long career in east Greenland.