Conservation of geological sites implies that they are perceived to have value to society.
Such values include their importance to:
History: a number of sites have played a significant part in the development of geological theories.
Education: visits to geological sites are an important element in the curriculum of schools and universities, complementing classroom work and lectures.
Research: the development of geology as a science is partly dependent upon access to sites in the long term to allow old theories to be retested and the development of new ones.
Resources: the earth is the source of many materials such as oil, coal and ores upon which all societies depend. Our ability to exploit these resources requires well trained geologists and engineers.
Landscape: many important scenic areas derive their character from the nature of the underlying geology.
Recreation: many people, including amateur geologists, climbers and walkers, derive pleasure from the continued existence of many geological sites.
Conservation implies that such sites are to be protected from potential threats, such as:
Landfill: the increasing need for the disposal of industrial and domestic waste has led to the loss of many quarries.
Changes to natural systems: active geomorphological sites are dependent upon the continued action of the formative process e.g. rivers in caves, wind action in dunes, wave and tidal action on beaches. Human induced changes to these processes can result in changes to the sites.
Coastal defence work: this can lead to the covering of geological sections and can alter the natural coastal regime with consequent impact on other areas of coastline. It would be impractical and undesirable to protect all rock exposures, but we must ensure that the best of our earth heritage sites are preserved for the future advantage of us all. This is the primary function of the ESCR.
The Earth Science Conservation Review (ESCR) is the means whereby geological sites in Northern Ireland are assessed to determine their importance to science and hence to earth science conservation.
The Review is being undertaken for a number of reasons including:
The objective of the ESCR is to define systematically all earth science localities, both geological and geomorphological, in Northern Ireland which achieve at least national significance.
The process which is used to select sites is as follows:
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» Site selection - minimum criteria are used to finalise site selection:
» sites must contain features that are at least nationally important;
» individual sites should not duplicate each other;
» it must be practical to conserve the site;
» preference will be given to sites with assemblages of features or interests.
Of the 52 subject blocks defined, work has been completed on them all. To date, 76 sites with a geological interest have been designated as ASSIs (190 ASSIs have been declared in total).
It is anticipated that all sites identified by the ESCR will also be designated - a total of some 200 additional sites.
Examples of the types of site that have been selected as ESCR.
The majority of selected sites consist of rock outcrops. These give people an opportunity to see the various rock types that are, for the most part, hidden from view. Taken together, these sites describe the solid rock foundation of Northern Ireland. This type of site is generally easily managed. Quarries are very important offering as they do, a glimpse at rocks that would otherwise be buried.
Many coastal sites are very fragile, subject to impact from nature, through increasing storm frequency and possible future rises in sea-level, and human interference, particularly from removal of sand and stone from beaches, from recreational impacts and from engineering developments.
Fossils are a fun way to get to know more about geology. Sites however can be fragile and must be managed carefully. Fortunately there are many sites rich in fossils, where repeated collecting poses no threat.
Once there were large deposits of diatomite along the north shore of Lough Neagh and around Lough Beg. Past cutting for use in the munitions industry especially, has greatly reduced its extent.
Diatomite and associated materials, are of importance for the information on past climate together with archaeological artifacts, that can be obtained from them.
Many of the landforms that can be seen in Northern Ireland, were formed by processes that operated in the past. This is particularly true of those related to past glacial activity.
Features such as eskers and glacial moraines are fossil landforms. They also are a valuable source of sand and gravel, used by the construction industry. It is important to strike a balance between the conservation of such sites whilst recognising the importance of this industry.
Northern Ireland has many important cave systems, hosting dramatic stalagmites, stalagtites and other examples of flowstone. Such places are not only wonderful to look at, they also represent a unique record of past climate and environment for these areas. These records are contained within the calcite (from which the flowstones are comprised) and sediment deposits.
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