Thu, Apr 22, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan’s volcanic connection to the world

By Engelbert Altenburger 古堡

Since Earth Day was founded in 1970, the UN has celebrated it each year in late April, a special holiday to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth’s environment. It has become similar to World Environment Day, now celebrated in June.

When considering the importance of this holiday and how it relates to Taiwan, think about the natural disasters that have occurred this month: The deadly earthquake in the remote Qinghai mountains in China and the momentous volcanic eruptions in Iceland.

When Taiwan was formed, today’s North America and Europe were separating from each other during the Jurassic Period. A great rift opened up, forming the Atlantic Ocean, divided by a gigantic sub-sea mountain ridge. Today, far north, near the Arctic Circle, appears a lonesome island “peak” covered with ice and glaciers: Iceland, where the dividing rift’s activity is fiercely demonstrated by the Eyjafjalla (“island-highland”) volcano.

Most news on the volcanic eruption has been about the economic losses, for example 81,000 canceled flights with US$2 billion in damages. If we would better understand our Earth, we would deplore the detrimental influence of humans on the environment and instead look forward with more respect and fear to better understand the challenges of where we live.

In 1997, two Europeans were inspired by China’s numerous protected regions — the needles in a haystack. In a country where the destruction of the environment is shocking the world, they have at least managed to preserve its most fascinating landscapes, as of this year there are almost 200 national Geoparks and 22 World Geoparks.

In 1997, Haute Provence in France became Europe’s first Geopark and a year later the UNESCO Geopark program was initiated. The alpine uplands of southern France document 300 million years of the Earth’s history. They now constitute Europe’s largest geological open-air museum (2,000km²) with fascinating rock formations and fossil sites. Besides 1550 ammonites on a single 320m² limestone wall, there are fossils of the ichthyosaur, an 18m long “fish-lizard” that haunted the Jurassic seas some 150 million years ago.

In Romania, we can find the pterosaur hatzegopteryx. The largest-ever flying animal, with a wing span of 12m, became extinct 65 million years ago, the remains of which have been discovered in the Hateg Country Dinosaurs Geopark at the foot of the 2,000m high Carpathian Mountains. Their destiny might have ended with volcanic eruptions, which have shaped this Romanian region with rock-tuffs, lava and volcanic bombs.

A while later, during the youngest period of our geologic history, 15 million to 20 million years ago, other volcanic disasters shattered southeastern Europe and formed what are now known as the Greek islands.

Among them is Lesvos (Lesbos), home to a unique petrified forest that once flourished as a tropical woodland. After it was buried under volcanic material, the dense vegetation fossilized.

As much of southern Europe was formed as a result of the African plate moving toward Europe, Taiwan is the result of the southeastern movement of the Eurasian plate. This one begins in Iceland and terminates where 150 million years ago continental sediments in the Formosan Strait were lifted up for the first time. Tiny islands have grown since then because of the time-honored process of sedimentary and volcanic build-up so now Taiwan constitutes a unique ­continental-oceanic multi-various and multi-cultural space.

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