Dr Iain Stewart, lecturer and TV documentary presenter, graduated in 1986 with a degree in geology and geography. After investigating the geology of earthquakes in Greece and Turkey for his PhD, he decided to take his geological research and knowledge to a new audience via two BBC Horizon specials, followed by the documentaries Journeys from the Centre of the Earth and Journeys into the Ring of Fire. Natalie Hoare talks to him about his latest series, Earth: The Power of the Planet, lecturing at the University of Plymouth and the best way of dealing with the constant threat from natural hazards
What's the new series about?
In a nutshell, it's about how the planet works. Over four programmes, we look at four fundamental forces that have shaped the planet through time: volcanoes, the atmosphere, the oceans and ice. We bring it all together in the last programme, where we look at the idea that these forces work in a really complex and sensitive way. What we find is that the Earth is a really amazing machine, with these fundamental processes that are being altered by humans. We talk about saving planet Earth, but actually, the story we reveal is that it's an incredibly robust survivor. But there's a difference between the survivability of the planet and the survivability of the human species. The planet isn't likely to be affected by anything that we do now because it has millions of years to adjust and adapt--as it has done in the past. There have been periods in the past where 95 per cent of life was wiped out in a geological blink of an eye.
So the prognosis for the planet is quite good, just not for humans
Who knows--the jury's out on that because [our survival] is very dependant on how we, as a society, deal with the threats that face us. What we can say is the planet has all of these coping mechanisms that served it well in the past. Geology gives us a long-term perspective that forces you not to react to every slight concern that gets raised about the planet, because you're dealing with something that has 4.5 billion years of history--it has been through a lot.
What are your main research interests?
I teach geology hazards, plate tectonics and so forth. However, my research focuses on earthquake geology and archaeology--something called archaeo-seismology--with a particular focus on the Mediterranean. Essentially, I try to find traces of past earthquakes, either in the rocks or in ruins, to try to extend our earthquake record beyond what we have from instrumental seismographs, which goes back about a century. I do this by using historical documents, as well as by examining the record held within these sites.
How do you retrieve the records held at these sites?
Sometimes it involves cutting trenches across earthquake faults, sometimes we look at coastlines, where the shores have been uplifted or dropped down by earthquakes, and other times it involves working alongside archaeologists researching [community] abandonment. What's great about this area [of research] is that I'm having to deal with a lot of human stories how geology affects people. …