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Reviews - November 2007

Engineering Geomorphology

Peter J Fookes, E Mark Lee & James S Griffiths
Published by: Whittles Publishing
Publication date: 2007
ISBN: 978-1-904445-38-8
List price: £40.00
281 pp

This book, written by three highly experienced practitioners of the art, provides a useful and thoughtful overview of the role of geomorphology in engineering. It is divided into five main sections covering the main geomorphic systems, and provides descriptions of these systems in a series of rather short chapters. Although much of the material is presented in a traditional way typical of any geomorphological textbook, the final section begins to develop a distinctive style bringing into play some of the thoughts raised in the prologue regarding the specific role of the geomorphologist within the engineering project team.

The book provides an overall justification of the role of geomorphology in engineering projects, giving emphasis to underlying concepts and the idea of landscape development, particularly with respect to longer timescales than those usually envisaged by engineers. It has a comprehensive coverage of different environmental situations and would work well as a basic introductory handbook. This is reflected in the decision to limit the number of references to brief lists at the end of each chapter and only key texts listed at the end. The unusual citation of the references in the text by the use of numbers improves the reading of the text, but means having to turn to the end of each chapter to find out the author details.

The final part of the book reflects the authors’ long experiences within engineering consultancy. However, it does not read like a conclusion and much of the content could have been introduced to better effect earlier in the book - where it would then have allowed a more distinct appreciation of the different geomorphological situations described in the individual chapters. It also becomes apparent that there are a number of geomorphic systems and terms introduced here which are not covered in the earlier chapters; for example cold climate systems and mountains. This section also contains a number of excellent colour diagrams – again, something not used to best effect in the earlier sections. This indicates a major inconsistency between the different parts of the book leading to many terms being introduced in the latter section without definition and explanation, except with reference to another book (‘Geomorphology for Engineers’) which appears to be a companion volume. These structural misgivings aside, this is a text that should be widely read by engineering students to allow better insight and appreciation of dynamic geomorphic environments.

W A Mitchell
Geography Department, Durham University


In the Heart of the Desert

Michael Quentin Morton
Published by: Green Mountain Press
Publication date: 2007
ISBN: 978-0-9552212-0-0
List price: £20.00
266 pp

This book is about the life of Mike Morton, a geologist with the Iraq Petroleum Company. Written by his younger son, it is mainly about Mike’s travels around the Middle East in the search for oil during the period 1945 to 1972.

Mike senior’s career started in Palestine in November 1945, carrying out regional mapping in the Dead Sea region and in Trans-Jordan. He had an early baptism of fire in the political upheavals of the Middle East, as he was in Jerusalem when "Jewish extremists" blew up the King David Hotel in July 1946.

After two years, Mike moved on to map in what is now the Yemen and Oman, where he experienced (enjoyed is probably stretching it) his first camel safari, endured with Yorkshire stoicism. Over the next 10 years, Mike went on to do fieldwork along much of the Hadhramaut Coast, and also in Jordan and Syria. In the latter, he and another geologist were arrested at gunpoint because they had strayed 10 yards inside the unmarked Turkish frontier. Other responsibilities were added at this time: Mike married Heather in 1949, and in 1950 she came out to join him at Tripoli in Lebanon, where she did battle with cockroaches, bedbugs and kleptomaniac servants. From then until 1957, the couple led the kind of life familiar to many in the oil industry at that time – husband out in the field, wife at base camp, bringing up their two young boys.

In 1957 Mike was promoted to Head of Department, and moved to Head Office, first in Qatar, then Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. In 1971 he resigned from the IPC, but in the same year was appointed deputy leader of a RGS expedition to the Mussandam Peninsula of Oman. The region had been forbidden to outsiders for many years, but a palace coup in 1970 changed all that, allowing Mike and his party of geographers, surveyors and zoologists to explore the stark, lunar mountains and deep, sheer-sided wadis.

Things have changed vastly in the Middle East that Mike Morton knew and loved. Mention Jordan or Oman to most people today, and it conjures up images of rather novel holidays - Petra, hiking in the Jebel Akhdar - but it was a different matter in the 1950s and 60s. Much of the region was politically unstable, with ill-defined boundaries. Inter-tribal enmity frequently expressed itself as armed raids, and the Political Officer was just as important a part of the field party as the geologists themselves. Days might pass before a local Sheikh would give permission for the field party to cross his lands. There were frustrations, but there was also a continual feeling of excitement, spiced with a hint of danger lurking over the next dune. Mike was one of that small band of men who thrived on all of that. This book does him justice.

Pete Webb, Petrus Consulting


Supercontinent: Ten billion years in the life of our planet

Ted Nield
Published by: Granta
Publication date: October 2007
ISBN: 978-1-86207-943-4
List price: £18.99

Regular readers of the Editor's column in Geoscientist will be familiar with the thoughtful and highly entertaining way that Ted Nield deals with a wide range of Earth science-related topics. In Supercontinent, which takes the form of a Foreword, 10 chapters and an Epilogue, Nield delves deep into earth history and homes in on various aspects of the supercontinent cycle.

The concept of the supercontinent cycle is a fairly recent one, and involves the formation and disappearance of unfamiliar landmasses such as Ur, Arctica, Baltica, Nena/Nuna/Columbia, Atlantica, Rodinia. These are long-vanished supercontinents that pre-date the more familiar Pangaea, the supercontinent that formed at the end of the Palaeozoic (around 245 million years ago) and whose break-up led to the formation of today’s continents. The subjects covered range from the history of the proposal and eventual acceptance of the theory of continental drift, through to the latest methods used for extracting evidence to prove that these ancient continents did once exist. Along the way Nield discusses the history of supercontinent research, theories about the formation and break-up of supercontinents, the weird and wacky cults and myths that grew up about them, and the meaning of life, the universe and geology. But he doesn't explain the reason for the reference to "10 billion years" in the book's title.

Like the wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking series of books subtitled Reflections on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould – and contrary to the impression given by the cover endorsements from Richard Fortey and Simon Winchester – Supercontinent does not aim to educate the reader by telling a story from beginning to end. Instead, the individual chapters take an aspect of the supercontinent story and run with it in unexpected ways. The chapters can, and I think should, be read as individual essays, and not necessarily in the order in which they appear. I recommend reading the Epilogue first.

Although it's a pity that the publishers didn't include more maps illustrating the older, unfamiliar supercontinents, or a geological time scale to help readers navigate the depths of deep time, Supercontinent is top-notch Nield in his 'anecdotage'. The writing is fluent, the text concise, and there are lots of amusing stories and wonderful one-liners – one cult figure is described as a 'cross between Colonel Sanders and a travelling medicine man'.

All in all, it's a great read that should appeal to professional and amateur earth scientists alike, as well as to anyone interested in the history of our planet.

Nina Morgan, Chadlington, OXON