The Future Of: The Evolving Earth

Featuring Dr Lloyd White

The Future Of series asks UOW experts and researchers a set of five questions to gain some insight into the future states of our lives, our communities, and the world.

Dr Lloyd White is a geologist in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health. His work focusses on understanding processes that occur at ancient and modern plate boundaries – particularly the formation of mountain belts and continent break-up.

Lloyd obtained a BSc. (Hons I) from the University of New South Wales with a double major in geology and spatial information systems. He moved to Canberra to join Geoscience Australia (Australian Federal Government) for two years as a Research Scientist, later moving to the Australian National University (ANU) to undertake a PhD project on the evolution of the Himalaya. He completed several postdoctoral fellowships (ANU and Royal Holloway University of London) before joining UOW as a Lecturer in 2017.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

I'm currently working on several projects that focus on the geology of West Papua (the Indonesian half of New Guinea, previously known as ‘Irian Jaya’). This area is the northern-most part of the Australian tectonic plate and the boundary with several other plates to our north - the Pacific and Caroline plates. I'm trying to understand the historical record of plate tectonics in the region. This history spans from the present-day to way back in time, several hundred million years ago. Actually, many of the rocks we see around Wollongong formed at the same time as the rocks I study in New Guinea. We think these formed as part of the same tectonic system several hundred million years ago – both developed under similar environmental conditions, near a plate boundary that stretched from New Guinea and around the edge of eastern Australia and Antarctica.

I’m particularly interested in what has been going on along the northern margin of New Guinea over the past few million years, which is relatively recently for a geologist. In one particular location, there are rocks that record evidence of being pushed together under immense pressure, forming faults and folds, and other periods of time when the rocks get stretched, kind of like pulling plasticine at both ends, causing parts of the plate to get thinner and hotter. This area has acted like an accordion – that is the rocks have been stretched, then squashed, and then stretched again. By examining isotopes trapped within the minerals within these rocks, we can determine how quickly this massive tectonic accordion was being pushed and pulled. We’ve shown that these cycles occur over periods of ~1–2 million year periods, again, quite quickly in geological terms. This work will help us to understand the formation of much older mountain belts, where it is more difficult to resolve the timing of tectonic events.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

The past decade has seen major advances in computing power and our ability to map the 3D structure of the Earth. We are now developing ways to model the 3D geometry of Earth’s tectonic plates and how these geometries change through time. We also now have the ability to make digital maps of the Earth that incorporate large databases of information so we can better simulate environmental change through time.

I think there's also a lot to be learnt by working with others – particularly on problems that span different disciplines. For instance, I work with several botanists and entomologists who are trying to understand plate tectonic drivers of historical environment change and how this might impact plant and animal evolution. For instance, the creation and destruction of mountain belts and the break-up of continents have an impact on climatic conditions and migratory pathways that may, in turn, have an impact on life.

The ability to work across disciplines also holds true for other problems. For instance, we're finding it increasingly difficult to find major deposits of oil, gas and minerals – we therefore need to develop innovative ways to find the materials required to maintain our resource-intensive lifestyles (e.g., the jet fuel for overseas flights, and all of the precious metals required for smartphones and other seemingly ‘disposable’ electronics). This will hopefully be achieved through the development of new technologies, but also through smarter exploration efforts that combine data from different disciplines to help us find new materials. This was part of the rationale for the development of a new subject “G-Cubed: Geochemistry, Geochronology, Geophysics” because we understand employers want graduates capable of solving problems through the synthesis of multiple strands of data.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

My advice would be to treat all sources of information with some scepticism, but also to keep an open mind to change and learning new things. We need to be cautious about where we source information and the credentials of those providing this information, but we also need to be open to new information and opinions that might differ from our original thinking.

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

There are many different career options for those who specialise in earth and environmental sciences, and too many to list here. However, here are some areas future graduates might be involved in:

  • We need to better understand the effects of long-term, human-induced climate change, as well as our local environment. There will be a growing need for people in research, government and industry required to monitor this issue and help develop solutions.
  • We will hopefully see humans heading to Mars within our lifetime – these astronauts and their teams at home will need to be able to examine and understand the data obtained from Mars as well as rovers and probes.
  • We will need environmental, civil and mining engineers to develop skills in earth and environmental sciences. We will also need teachers capable of educating the next generation about the Earth and environment.
  • I expect we will progressively move away from the exploitation of coal resources, but we will continue to need people to find and extract hydrocarbons for energy, lubricants and other materials (plastic) as well as the extraction of groundwater and underground storage of carbon dioxide.
  • We will also continue to need people to explore for new mineral resources to ensure we have the materials to build and maintain our way of life.
  • Earth and environmental scientists are often employed by the mineral, coal and energy industries, by engineering firms and consultancies, banking/finance, educational and research institutions as well as at all levels of government (e.g., local councils, geological surveys, CSIRO, environmental bodies)

What's the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

I've been fortunate to find a career where I'm able to work on interesting problems and develop a better understanding of how the Earth has changed over time. This has come with the benefit of a good salary and travel to parts of the world (often where few others have been).

My advice to others would be to try to find something you enjoy and find interesting. It would also help to learn more about your future career prospects and some idea of your future potential income to make sure you can afford the life you want to lead.

Also, remember that it is ok to change direction to find something more suitable. For instance, I was once enrolled in a course on Bioinformatics – I later changed to study Geology. I then spent a lot of time trialling different career avenues (mining, government) to find out what I did and didn’t want to do.

For more from Dr Lloyd White you can visit his UOW Scholars profile