Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How long have rocks been around?

I got some really tough questions from the Beavers and Cubs on Monday night. First we had to establish that a flintknapper wasn't a kidnapper who takes flint. Most of the kids were Beavers, so they were between 5 and 7 and they needed some help understanding that things used to be different in the past. Usually I start a demo explaining what makes a good rock for making stone tools, but for this age they needed a little more background and had questions like "why did people make tools out of stone?" or "why didn't they just buy them with money?". The next time I work with kids this age, I'll need to remember to start at the beginning.

One of the tough questions I got at the end was "How long have rocks been around?". I think the question was asking what people made their tools from before rocks were around, so the answer was that rocks were always here. They were here before people came to Newfoundland and they were even around before the dinosaurs - which is about as old as you can imagine. I was grasping for a better answer - something that would acknowledge that rocks are as old as the earth or some kind of absolute number. Eventually I remembered that I had seen the oldest rock in the world recently. It was in the airport in Yellowknife and it was at least 3.9 Billion years old. I couldn't recall the name - "Acasta Gneiss" - but it came from the Northwest Territories and it dates between 3.9 and 4.1 Billion years old.

Unfortunately for the Yellowknife airport display (and the Smithsonian who hauled a 4 tonne boulder of this stuff down to Washington in 2003) researchers in Northern Quebec have apparently trumped the Acasta Gneiss with some 4.28Billion year old rock from the Quebec shore of Hudson's Bay.

I still like the Yellowknife airport though - they saved my darts for me while Canadian North lost the rest of my luggage.

Last summer, Lori and I were working in Nunavut and during our week off we flew to Calgary instead of St. John's. We didn't go through security at the start of our flight in Iqaluit, because the plane made a couple stops in the north. Before we could fly into an airport in the south we had to deplane and go through security in Yellowknife. I wasn't thinking and so I had my darts in my pocket. The security guard did everything he could to keep from taking them away from me, but he couldn't let me get back on the plane with them and I didn't know anyone in Yellowknife to hold them for me. I'd be flying back through Yellowknife in a week and he offered to hang onto them for me, so he gave me his info and put my darts in an envelope and put them in his pocket.

A week later we were flying back through Yellowknife and I tried to find the guard, but he wasn't working that shift, so I lost my darts. By that point, the darts weren't a big deal, because Canadian North had lost my checked luggage which had all my field gear and Lori's camera in it. I had to repurchase all my gear on my week off so that I could go back to work, so losing a set of darts on top of that was a pretty minor loss. It turned out that we couldn't fly into Iqaluit that day because of fog, so our Calgary-Edmonton-Yellowknife-Rankin Inlet-Iqaluit flight paused at Rankin Inlet and took us back to Yellowknife, for the night. Which meant I had another shot at getting my darts back - this time the guard was in the airport and he still had my darts in his glove box. So he ran out to his car and got them for me. The irony is that if I would have packed them correctly on the trip south they would have been lost with all my other gear, so my minor loss turned into a major victory!

The rest of the trip was a blur - we wound up going back to Edmonton and Calgary and then flying to Ottawa, overnight there, and then back to Iqaluit the next day.

Photo Credits:
Top, Bottom: Lori White
Middle: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
Scenes from the Yellowknife airport, summer 2008.

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