James borrell is a conservation scientist and science communicator, with a particular interest in how species adapt to changing climate.

On Geodes: Geology and Philosophy

We had been bouncing along in the 4×4’s since first light. Progressively the road turned from tarmac to gravel to sand, and then with the minarets of Al Hashman fading back into the heat haze, it disappeared entirely. Turning due North, we set of with the lead car breaking trail across an incomprehensibly vast gravel plain. Great plumes of dust rose in our wake interspersed with staccato thuds as the geodes crumbled under our weight.

Geodes look like strange petrified cauliflowers, ranging in size from marbles to footballs, they lie strewn across this region of the Empty Quarter. In places they form fields so thick, that hitting them is unavoidable. I’d never seen or heard of them before, but they burst with a satisfying pop.

We spent over an hour searching for a route into Base Camp, but were thwarted by impenetrable lines of low dunes. We slowed to a stop, coming up with a plan. It was only then that I could pick up one of these unusual ‘things’ for lack of a better word. Whilst dull and sandblasted on the outside, by contrast the inside was covered with serrated ranks of glistening crystals.

The whole team found them fascinating, picking up armfuls at a time to break open and marvel at, with their different sizes and shades, from tiny and green to huge and violet. The novelty didn’t wear off for several days. Some were dull and eroded within, on these we found tiny holes that had apparently allowed sand to enter, rapidly destroying the crystals. The ones we had broken open suffered the same fate, rapidly becoming dull, brown and lifeless. The Bedu, we were told, use them to drink from.

And so these geodes of the Empty Quarter pose an interesting dilemma I think. On one hand they seem infinitely abundant, easy to find, in ready supply; endless. But on the other side of the coin, they are finite; The conditions under which they formed are unlikely to ever occur again. They sit where they have sat for thousands if not millions of years, but every single one opened or damaged even slightly, is lost and irreplaceable.

It’s odd to be philosophical about a rock, but I think similarities can be drawn across a range of environments, from resources to species. So after the first few days, we went out of our way to avoid disturbing these strange formations, probably unnecessarily, but it seemed like a good thing to do. I wonder how long it will be before them become rare.

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