Features

The Earth’s Storyteller

How a geology professor had the adventure of a lifetime bringing plate tectonics to television

by Andrew Westoll
Lava Lake

The lava lake of the Erta Ale volcano in the Afar region of Ethiopia is one of the only four persistent lava lakes in the world.

If the hallmark of a great documentary host is the ability to elicit both surprise and wonder in a single cinematic moment, then Nick Eyles is a natural. A geology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Eyles is also the globe-trotting host of Geologic Journey II, the five-part documentary series on plate-tectonics science produced for CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. And it was while shooting an episode of GJ II in a desolate corner of Africa that Eyles earned his stripes in front of the camera.

Consider the scene: Eyles and his team have just completed a harrowing, sickness-inducing, five-day expedition into the Afar Depression in northeast Ethiopia. This exhausting journey will not appear in the final cut of the episode, of course. In the withering Afar, pocketbook wisdom goes out the window and only the destination counts.

The Afar is part of the East African Rift, the gargantuan 6,000-kilometre fissure in the Earth’s surface caused by two tectonic plates, the Nubian and the Somalian, shearing apart from one another with seismic force. Stretching from Mozambique to Syria, this rift is known to science as the cradle of modern humans, the birthplace of Homo sapiens, and the Afar is perhaps its most anthropologically productive region. In 1974 the most famous of ancestral human skeletons—the small-skulled bipedal, ‘Lucy’—was unearthed here, hence the scientific name of her species, Australopithecus afarensis.

But anthropology is not why Eyles is here. And despite its reputation as the cradle of humanity, the Afar is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Not only is it a forbidding desert, baked to a crisp by temperatures regularly approaching 50 degrees Celsius, the Afar is also home to numerous active volcanoes and is one of the rare places on Earth where red-hot liquid magma rises up from the planet’s superheated underworld to pool at the surface. Sitting atop a mountain—Erta Ale—is an active lava lake, one of only four in the world.

Erta Ale is known locally as “the gateway to hell.” A well-regarded book was written about the region in the 1920s by Englishman L. M. Nesbitt, titled Hell-Hole of Creation: The Exploration of Abyssinian Danakil. And when Hollywood filmmakers require their protagonists to venture into the fires of Hades, they regularly use aerial footage of this very mountain to set the scene. It is here, at the blistering end of the Ethiopian leg of his journey, looking down into the seething heart of our planet from the crest of Erta Ale, that Nick Eyles and his audience experience a genuine eureka moment.

“This is the Holy Grail for me,” Eyles tells us, as the camera scans the roiling red-black sea of molten rock bubbling up from somewhere only science fiction writer Jules Verne would recognize. Then the science host in Eyles takes over, and the episode shifts into the terrain of documentary magic.

Nick Eyles never imagined he’d be on television.

“My work has taken me to some weird places, some weird landscapes,” he says from his journal-strewn office in the Science Wing of the Andrews Building at UTSC. “And I’ve often thought I’d like to share this with people somehow. But I never thought this would happen.”

Eyles’s journey from respected expert on glacial sedimentology to swashbuckling science host began with a phone call in 2006. The caller was Michael Allder, the executive producer of TNOT at the time. Allder was directing and producing the pilot episode of Geologic Journey, the precursor to GJ II, which chronicled the geologic history of Canada in HDTV. Allder needed a scientist who could speak on camera about salt deposits in the Great Lakes. “I’m no salt expert,” says Eyles. “But I know where it occurs and why.”

Soon, Eyles found himself in Goderich, Ontario, surrounded by a camera crew, packed into an elevator descending into the bowels of the largest salt mine in the world. During the descent, Eyles explained to his newfound audience how the lucrative salt deposits beneath Lake Huron are the legacy of a vast tropical sea that swamped the middle of North America 400 million years ago.

Allder was impressed. “Nick has a gift for communication,” he says. “There is a big difference between a lecture hall and the camera, but Nick was able to explain these complicated concepts in a direct and accessible way.” Not long after Goderich, Allder asked Eyles to travel to the Rockies, then the Appalachians. “Nick became a key player, a crucial part to the series,” says Allder. “He uses the camera in a very understated way and he is a very quick learner.”

Geologic Journey was a hit, and Allder and Eyles quickly set about plotting the sequel. But GJ II would be much more ambitious than its predecessor. It would attempt to explain, in the most visually arresting way, nothing less than how our planet’s entire tectonic system operates. It would tell the story of the Earth as it is written in stone, as it has never been told before, and Eyles would be the host. Due to the success of the first series, the sequel was an easy sell to CBC brass. A buy-in from Discovery Science in the U.S. and National Geographic International helped bring in much-needed financing, and the CBC team, along with independent partners from 90th Parallel Productions, set to work.

In their “war room”—a small nook at CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto that they wallpapered with maps and aerial photography—Allder and Eyles, together with development producer Fran Yanor and associate producer Romilla Karnick, battled the challenge of condensing the geologic history of the world into prime-time TV. Meanwhile, in nearby Cabbagetown their 90th Parallel colleagues, led by executive producer Gordon Henderson, faced a similar quest: how to turn tectonic science into a storyboard with a travel itinerary to match. “I literally walked [into the project] with a wish list of places to go,” recalls Eyles, who had secured a year-long leave from UTSC to work on producing the series. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Here’s the planet: Where do we go to best illustrate how this fantastic place works?”

For seven months, between June 2009 and January 2010, Eyles, along with two crew members and one of three rotating producer-directors — Michael Allder, Andrew Gregg and Kenton Vaughn — circumnavigated the globe by plane, car, truck, helicopter and foot. They travelled to 23 countries in search of the most graphic and, at times, chilling examples of the Earth’s raw geologic power. So challenging was the terrain (consider the Himalayas, Iceland and the volcanoes of the Pacific Rim) and so potentially volatile were some of the locales (Egypt, Ethiopia, Israel and Jordan) that before CBC would let Eyles hit the road, he had to enroll in and successfully complete the “hostile environments” survival course the network puts all foreign correspondents through.

Eyles, who occasionally had to travel with armed guards, was in real danger only twice. Once was in the Afar, when he set out on his own to scour the desert for obsidian, a black volcanic glass that is known for its dark beauty and ability to hold a near-perfect blade edge. Two heavily armed teenagers stopped the geologist at a random roadblock, in the middle of dust-blown nowhere, and demanded to know what he was doing. Unbeknownst to Eyles at the time, the local Danakil people use obsidian to mark their burial sites. The young men thought Eyles was a grave robber.

The other close call occurred in central Java, when Eyles and a local expert climbed to the summit of Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia. “The lava dome was quite inflated and there were cracks all over the place,” he recounts. “We could tell it was ready to go.” Not three months after their visit, Merapi let loose its fury, killing more than 300 villagers in an avalanche of blistering gas and sizzling magma.

While on the road for CBC, Eyles came to a welcome realization. “Field research and television are actually very similar processes. You have a team, a lot of equipment, the equipment’s got to work, we’ve got to get the data and then get the heck out of there.” The real challenge with TV, he says, is time. “You don’t have very long to convey big ideas. It’s all about compression—coming up with a new way of looking at things and being able to talk about it intelligently in a very short amount of time.”

Of course, another difficulty is that everything has to happen on cue in front of the camera, and sometimes scenes need to be reshot for lighting or other technical reasons. “Seventeen takes is my personal record,” he says with a rueful smile. “Television can be incredibly exhausting at times.”

As a scientist, Eyles has been trained to be dispassionate in the face of tectonic destruction. But filming GJ II has given him real pause. “It’s been an eye opener,” he says. “I teach geologic hazard courses; I talk about processes, volcanoes erupting, earthquakes happening, buildings falling down. But I’d never really talked to people who’ve experienced these things.”

In Japan, Eyles interviewed survivors of the 7.2-magnitude Tottori earthquake of 1943, which killed more than a thousand people. “The people I spoke with were kids at the time. They’d gone home for lunch, but some of their classmates had stayed at the school. Those were killed.”

In Chile, Eyles met people who live in close quarters with volcanoes. They embrace life in the shadow of the mountains, and when an eruption occurs they just move their village to a new site. “I asked one guy, ‘How do you even contemplate living next to a volcano?’ And he said, ‘Well, where do you live?’ And he had a point. Driving on the 401 is probably more risky, relatively speaking, than living next to a bloody volcano. These people have a different perception of risk.” (See “The World’s Riskiest Cities.”)

Meanwhile, at a Himalayan monastery, Eyles attended religious services aimed at placating the gods who create earthquakes. This experience left Eyles to consider his own powerlessness in the face of Earth’s forces. “Who’s to say [those ceremonies] are any less effective than science? We can’t predict where an earthquake will happen or when. So, are we any further ahead than [Himalayan monks] are? I was really struck by that question.

“Landscapes are like palimpsests. They record all these old processes—tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years’ worth. Thinking on a big scale, and trying to unravel how that particular part of the earth’s surface got to where it is today—I get a great kick out that.”

Thanks to Eyles, Allder and the CBC, many more people across the country got a kick out of it, too. When it first ran, the series drew average audiences of about 800,000, and when CBC reran the Pacific Rim episode after the devastating earthquake in Japan, the show drew nearly a million viewers.

“That’s the biggest payoff for me,” says Eyles. “With CBC we’ve been able to put the science on a whole different footing. It’s made our national broadcaster aware that geology is actually a great topic for TV. Given the importance of geology to the Canadian economy and the difficulty of getting students into the subject, I think an important door has been opened.”

The year Eyles spent planning and shooting GJ II was the most fulfilling of his career. While bringing the science of plate tectonics to national television, he slept outdoors in the Himalayas, drank homebrew with an Ethiopian priest, interviewed an Indonesian sultan who believed himself to be the intermediary between a volcano and his people, and even discovered an aptitude for marksmanship when one of his guards let him fire his AK-47 assault rifle. But what surprised him most about his journey?

“That I was actually there,” he says, erupting with laughter. “I was living an absolute dream.”

Which brings us back to Ethiopia’s Afar Depression, and the nightmarish setting of Erta Ale. Eyles is experiencing one of the highlights of his career, the Holy Grail of his life as a geologist. Yet throughout, he never forgets his primary role as scientist and tour guide.

With his back to the seething lake of lava below, Eyles explains how the central message of Geologic Journey II—the fact that the tectonic journey of our planet is a violent and ongoing one—is being played out right before our eyes. In the grey skin of the cooling lava and the schisms of red-hot magma that bubble up and cleave it, Eyles as a documentary host has found that perfect image, that singular moment of surprise and wonder.

“Here we’ve got a perfect example of plate tectonics on a small scale,” he says. “We can see dark grey rafts, which are like continents, separated by bright red rifts, where new magma is coming up and forcing those continents apart… That’s the closest we will come to actually looking at the Earth’s mantle… It’s an absolutely fantastic experience, not just as a scientist but as a human being.”