“I sought the future and past catastrophe of the social in geology, in that upturning of depth that can be seen in the striated spaces, the reliefs of salt and stone, the canyons where the fossil river flows down, the immemorial abyss of slowness that shows itself in the erosion and geology.” – Jean Baudrillard
The evolution of life on earth has been disrupted by five mass extinction events, the worst of which wiped out 95% of all life on the planet. Rising rates of species extinction and CO2 levels have led scientists to conclude that we are now experiencing a sixth mass extinction event.
In 2011 the world’s leading paleogeologists converged on an area close to my birthplace in the UK’s Westcountry. The latest clues to the cause of one of the five mass extinction events were thought to lie in the rocks and fossil record of the cliffs and foreshores of North Somerset. More precisely, in an inch-thick layer of buff-colored limestone that is rarely exposed in the strata of the cliffs. A layer below which life teemed, but above which most of the planet’s species simply vanished. The news report seemed quaintly incongruous – scientists hunting for clues to cataclysmic global events on my local beach armed only with rock hammers and some sandwich bags.
Following the team of paleogeologists as they pursued the two hundred million year old mystery led me to the coastlines of North Somerset and South Wales and a meteorite crater in western France. Sifting tiny clues from the strata of the geology, the investigators used forensic methods to recreate an ancient global ecosystem. In the same locations I researched local historical and environmental records, photographing traces of other extinct ecosystems – the residue that remains in the alchemy of the rocks or the shadows of the undergrowth. Each image in this project reflects a particular ecosystem ‘die-off’. From the debris of a meteorite strike to the tell-tale traces of lethal sea level fluctuations; from the geomorphic evidence of the UK’s worst natural disaster to the traces of vanished communities and the footprints of Neolithic man. Each ecosystem has dissipated into a new layer of dust, awaiting rediscovery by future paleogeologists. Clues to mass extinction events yet to come.
Seawater cooling intakes for Aberthaw coal-fired power station, South Glamorgan. The seawater is used to remove sulphur dioxide from exhaust gases produced from burning coal. The power station both creates and destroys new ecosystems. A nearby protected SSSI site, renowned for its extremely rare Marsh fritillary butterflies, was destroyed in the creation of one of the largest open cast mines in the UK – most of the coal from the mine was burnt at Aberthaw.
On the other hand the establishment of the power station site has helped protect rare saline lagoon habitat and many of the endangered species found there. Aberthaw’s future electricity output is to be reduced due to a legal case brought against the UK by the European Commission. The court ruled that between 2008 and 2011 the plant pumped out more than double the legal amount of toxic nitrogen oxides.
All images and text © Jon Wyatt
By Jon Wyatt
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