Saving the Stones: To Most People, Conservation Means Preserving the World's Biodiversity: Its Animals and Plants. but Understanding That the Physical Earth-Rock, Soil, Fossils, Minerals and Landforms-Has Its Own Values and Threats Is Leading to Increased Efforts to Preserve 'Geodiversity' Alongside Biodiversity

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A MERE 17 YEARS AGO, FEW PEOPLE OUTSIDE THE biological sciences had ever heard of 'biodiversity'. The signing of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 changed all that: it not only brought a new word into general use, but also stimulated an international movement to conserve genetic, species and ecosystem diversity. It gave increased strength and impetus to wildlife conservation in all regions of the planet, and affected all levels, from internationally threatened species to local wildlife sites.

In the UK, Local Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared, wildlife numbers are being used as environmental performance indicators and Species Recovery Programmes are being implemented. And this huge wildlife conservation focus has been added to the already impressive efforts of organisations such as WWF, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and county Wildlife Trusts.

But it's wrong to equate nature conservation solely with wildlife conservation. Biodiversity is only half of the natural environment; the physical, inanimate or abiotic world also has a geological and geomorphological diversity, or 'geodiversity'. Last year's International Year of Planet Earth helped to cement this principle.

SERVICE PROVIDER

There are several different definitions of geodiversity. It could be defined as 'the natural range (diversity) of geological (rocks, minerals, fossils), geomorphological (landforms, processes) and soil features. It includes their assemblages, relationships, properties, interpretations and systems'. Mick Stanley of environmental consultancy Geodiversity Consulting prefers a wider definition: 'The link between people, landscapes and culture; it is the variety of geological environments, phenomena and processes that make those landscapes, rocks, minerals, fossils and soils that provide the framework for life on Earth.'

This latter point is important because without the variation in topography, physical processes and geological materials, there would be much less biodiversity. But the world's geodiversity is valuable in many other ways. For example, almost all natural resources that aren't grown are derived from the Earth's crust. Over the centuries, human societies have been adept at exploiting the diversity of these materials, whether it be metals, building materials, industrial minerals, gemstones or fuels. Even the variation in Scottish malt whiskies is partly related to the mineral content of the local water.

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The variation in topography and physical processes--whether in mountain, coastal, fluvial, desert, plateau, glacial or volcanic environments--is reflected by the diverse landscapes that provide the basis for many leisure activities. For example, the varying difficulty of ski runs is largely related to the steepness and topography encountered on the mountain. The Grand Canyon in the USA, the Norwegian fjords and Australia's Uluru (Ayers Rock) are visited mainly because of their physical attributes; they are geotourism, rather than ecotourism, destinations.

Uluru is held to be sacred by the local Aboriginal people, and many other mountains, hills and rocks around the world also have spiritual value. And of course, the world's geological resources have immense value to scientific research, with the rock and fossil records providing the evidence to reconstruct the history of the Earth and the evolution of life.

These and the many other values provided by the world's geodiversity can be referred to as 'geosystem services', the physical equivalent of the 'ecosystem services' that are much discussed in ecological circles.

SOLID AS A ROCK?

There is a natural tendency to think of wildlife as being fragile and vulnerable and therefore in need of conservation, whereas rocks and mountains tend to be seen as stable, static and much too abundant ever to be endangered. …