Science provides an underpinning for much of what UNESCO Global Geoparks do. The unique geoscience of your Geopark area will be fundamental to and guide any application to UNESCO in the first instance. This scientific background will then inform the interpretation messages you wish to highlight to residents and visitors.
Geoparks typically provide great opportunities to act as natural laboratories for conducting research into a range of environmental topics as they are areas where geological heritage or geodiversity is of international importance. As a result, Geoparks are actively encouraged to work with academic institutions to engage in original scientific research in the Earth Sciences and the natural environment.
- Research Programmes
- Sustainability of Geo-sites
- Seminars and Workshops
- Pride of Place and promoting Geotourism
- The UNESCO context
- Case Studies
UNESCO Global Geoparks are territories where the geological heritage is of international importance, and applications for Global Geopark status need to highlight important geo-sites and their scientific significance at the international, national and regional level.
However, it must be remembered that the application needs to recognise that the Geopark as a whole is a geographic area that also highlights the wider natural and cultural and social heritage (both tangible and intangible). Therefore, from inception, Geoparks are encouraged to work with a range of academic and research institutions, in order to engage in a variety of geological and non-geological scientific research.
This presents great opportunities, as the Geopark area can be promoted to scientific researchers as a laboratory with a wide spectrum of potential subjects on offer, so acting as a research field for natural, technological, human, and social sciences, using a holistic approach.
As well as looking back in time at the rocks, sediments and surface features, Geopark research must also be looking forward to the advancement of knowledge about the Earth and its processes and the interaction of humans with the environment.
2. Research Programmes
One of the main strategic actions for Geoparks is the development, implementation and support of scientific research programmes. Research within the Geopark can operate at all levels, where people can become engaged in science from the highest academic research to the level of the curious visitor.
Over the past two decades, Global Geoparks have proven to be meaningful places for research and implementation of scientific knowledge that, in many situations, have contributed to the creation of scientific jobs and the production of scientific publications, ranging from:
- doctoral theses,
- master’s dissertations,
- articles in cited journals,
- abstracts in scientific congresses,
- undergraduate projects,
- outreach scientific brochures,
- popular publications,
- media involvement.
Clearly, the range of research activities in Geoparks does not only involve professional scientists and is not just confined to geological research. An example of this is the recognition that many of the most popular research programmes developed in Geoparks are strongly interconnected with geo-educational and geo-touristic initiatives aimed at the general public. This allows the promotion of citizen science initiatives through participation, in order to engage the local population with the research and scientific knowledge developed therein. For example, as well as specific project involvement, activities can include guided walks and lectures to communities and local societies. In addition, the fact that the research carried out highlights the intrinsic value of features within the Geopark or within a community, contributes to the sense of pride of the locals and, in this way, to the recognition and protection of these features for future generations.
2.a Supporting Science
Geoparks can support science in a variety of ways, but two main activities are most common:
- Actively aid the research programmes of other institutions, such as universities, or
- Develop their own Geopark research programmes and invite researchers to participate and so benefit the management of the Geopark.
Universities usually have undergraduate courses with classes of students and post graduate researchers, often working individually. In the first case, Geoparks can offer undergraduate students and lecturers field locations to support their coursework, often in “classic” areas of geology or geomorphological landforms such as studies on moraines of the Younger Dryas of the Brecon Beacons as explored by students in Fforest Fawr Geopark.
Post-graduate and professorial researchers may carry out more detailed research and studies on one or two sites which may include detailed sampling, sub-surface investigations or geological mapping work, which enhances the understanding of specific sites or areas within the Geopark.
Some Geoparks, through their management strategies, have developed their own research programmes and encourage researchers to become involved in them. These projects may be explicitly more holistic and have cross-cutting themes, for example, exploring the impact of resource exploitation on human migration and settlement patterns.
In all cases, the Geopark should be able to draw on the outcomes of research within their territories to promote the unique geological aspects of the Geopark and provide important information which can be used for interpretation and promotion in communities and for geo-tourism.
Applications should therefore emphasise how the range of activities stimulate the pursuit of new academic research and how this can cascade down to projects actively involving communities, visitors and young people. The results of new scientific research will ensure that Geoparks will continue to fulfil their role as active centres for science at the service of society and providing a holistic view involving Earth history, the natural and cultural environment and raise awareness of mankind’s responsibility to conserve and protect the environment for the future.
2.b Important Messages
In many Geoparks, research provides an opportunity to highlight particular themes which are relevant to communities and visitors within the Geopark territory which which also have wider international significance. Common themes which research often explores includes:
- Climate change and its impacts.
- Geohazards such as flooding, landslides, earthquakes etc.
- Exploitation of mineral resources and sustainable development.
- Landscape change and human adaptation.
The importance of topics such as this means they are recognised by UNESCO, which actively encourages Geoparks to engage with them as part of the Geopark application and management process.
3. Sustainability of Geo-sites
The presence of internationally important geo-sites lies at the heart of any Geopark application. As well as emphasising the unique aspect of your Geopark, these geo-sites regularly attract new researchers and can be crucial for advancing geological knowledge. However, they can be subject to serious damage by inappropriate sampling, particularly when new scientific techniques are developed. For example:
- Geo-sites which mark important stratigraphic boundaries are particularly prone to excessive sampling for geophysical analysis or radio-isotope dating.
- Fossil sites can be stripped of valuable material which is then lost to other researchers.
Geoparks can act as exemplars of sustainability, working with universities and research institutes to encourage students and researchers to observe “best practice” by sampling outcrops appropriately to avoid visible damage which detracts from the geo-site, or encourage working together to minimise the amount of material collected. Some Geoparks may have museums of material previously collected which can be made available to researchers and students. In many cases, Geoparks and their partners have worked together to develop “Codes of Practice” to assist students and researchers and ensure geo-sites are properly managed.
In some countries, important geo-sites have legal protection and may have a government body from which permission to collect samples for research is required. The Geopark may be able to act as a conduit between the researcher and government body to ensure that important messages of sustainability are met but still permit valuable new research to be carried out.
4. Seminars and Workshops
If your Geopark is regularly used by students and researchers, you may be able to organise or sponsor regular seminars and/or workshops within your territory. These can be opportunities to encourage new speakers to explain their work and can be open for residents and tourists to attend. These could, for example, be part of the programme for the annual Geopark Festival.
Interactive workshops enable researchers and Geopark partners and stakeholders to come together to develop new research and project ideas, educational and interpretation programmes for the future sustainable management of the Geopark.
Regular international Geopark network conferences also take place (e.g. the European Geoparks Network conference is held once every four years) which individual Geoparks should attend, and these fora provide opportunities to highlight new Geopark research and activities in the various conference sessions.
5. Pride of Place and Promoting Geotourism
New findings and promoting the outcomes of current research are always a great hook for keeping a Geopark fresh in minds of people; they also instil a pride of place and become talking points in day to day activities and among local people and the tourism community who often relay details to their visitors. Thus, engaging with science and promoting the results can reap benefits in many areas.
For example, mainstream media may pick up on fossil discoveries. The local community takes great pride in seeing their region spoken about in the media and how the Geopark becomes a focus of attention. This provides opportunities for Geopark officers to give talks to local community groups, to staff at tourism centres, on community radio and visit schools which are co-ordinated through the Geopark office.
As well as the specific interest, the Geopark officer or geologist should use these opportunities to promote Geoparks as well as Earth science. By being welcoming, the Geopark can attract more visitors, further highlight the importance of research and explain the principles of sustainable geotourism so that the research outcomes can be enjoyed by all sectors of society.
6. The UNESCO Context
Science in its broadest sense is one of UNESCO’s ‘Top Ten focus areas for Geoparks’.
Indeed, considering the other focus areas – Natural Resources, Geological Hazards, Climate Change, Education, Culture, Women, Sustainable Development, Local and Indigenous knowledge, and Geoconservation – the prominent underpinning role science has across all focus areas becomes evident. Without the contribution of scientific knowledge that comes from research programmes, it would be very difficult to perceive and act in order to mitigate impacts, optimize resources, preserve culture, increase the level of education, implement inclusive strategies and promote sustainable territorial development, among others.
UNESCO Global Geoparks are encouraged to work with academic institutions to engage in active scientific research in the Earth Sciences, and other disciplines as appropriate, to advance our knowledge about the Earth and its processes. UNESCO Global Geoparks are special areas where the geological heritage, or geodiversity, is of international importance. A UNESCO Global Geopark is not a museum, it is an active laboratory where people can become engaged in science from the highest academic research level to the level of the curious visitor. A UNESCO Global Geopark must take great care not to alienate the public from science and absolutely must avoid the use of technical scientific language on information boards, signs, leaflets, maps and books which are aimed at the general public.
6.b Climate Change
Climate change is one of UNESCO’s ‘Top Ten focus areas for Geoparks’. UNESCO says:
UNESCO Global Geoparks hold records of past climate change and are educators on current climate change as well as adopting a best practise approach to utilising renewable energy and employing the best standards of “green tourism.” While some UNESCO Global Geoparks stimulate green growth in their region through innovative projects, others serve as outdoor centres to demonstrate the effects of current climate change thus giving the opportunity to show visitors how climate change can affect our environment. Such community and educational activities and projects are important in order to raise awareness on the potential impact of climate change on the region, and to provide the local communities with the knowledge to mitigate and adapt to the potential effects of climate change.
In this context, the major issue today is understanding and emphasising the effect that human activities are having globally. However, it should always be remembered that climate change would happen today even if there were no humans on Earth. In order to evaluate the added effect of human activities, climate change messages should explain the underlying non-human changes to climate changes and many Geoparks are singular laboratories to study and understand this. In fact, the rocks and sediments of these territories keep a record of the climate changes through the geological time and, with the support of the research and the educational programmes, it is possible to know its consequences. With a full awareness of this reality, it is possible to envisage future impacts as a result of large-scale human-influenced climate change in a short period of time.
Depending on the location of your Geopark, the impacts and consequences of climate change will be different and your research programmes will reflect this. For some geographical areas, the changes may entail an economic upswing, while others will experience human, natural, and economic degradation. These impacts are expected to intensify in the coming decades, with concerns that include melting ice and rising sea levels, extreme weather, shifting rainfall, risks for human health and threats for wildlife, among others. This reality brings important social and economic costs, with aggravated consequences, mainly in developing countries.
In this context, the Geopark Management Entity need to consider the relevance of this issue in its Management Plan, in order to have a permanent action towards the explanation and mitigation of the climate change impacts. The Geopark thus has a role effectively contributing to the development of resilient and prepared communities to face a current and global phenomenon. Management strategies will need to be responsible for the development of projects and initiatives about the impacts related to climate change. Among these, there may be a focus on:
- educational programmes
- adoption of best practice approaches for the natural risks’ mitigation,
- the use of renewable energy and
- employing the best standards on Geotourism, among others.
These community and educational activities and projects are important in order to raise awareness on the impact of climate change to local communities and visitors to the Geopark and support them with the knowledge to mitigate and adapt to the potential effects of climate change.
In addition, “climate change” is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (No. 13). The goal is to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy”.
- Geological hazards
As territories of science and education, with an important focus on the geological background, the UGGps are unique living laboratories for the study research and local engagement for raising awareness about geological hazards and their prevention, mitigation, and action in a case of occurrence. In this sense, the UGGps have a strong commitment on the building process of resilient communities (2030 Agenda SDG 11). In fact, through scientific research, articulated with citizen science and participatory research, it is possible to identify the more vulnerable areas of territory. In this framework, the UGGps must promote and improve research programmes and activities for local science engagement, particularly focused on awareness regarding the different geological hazards that affect each territory.
Most UGGps promote awareness events and educational activities about geological hazards, including volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, avalanches and/or floods and, commonly, develop disaster mitigation strategies for the local communities and visitors. Through the educational activities are given information on the source of geological hazards and ways to reduce their impact, including disaster response strategies. These efforts provide important capacity and contribute to building more resilient communities, which have sufficient know-how to face the occurrence of geological hazards. As a result of geological and geomorphological processes, the vast majority are not preventable.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance that, from the first moment, policymakers, local authorities and the communities themselves are aware and trained to prevent and minimize the impact of these occurrences, as well as to act appropriately in case of any geological hazard. In this context, the UGGps due to their territorial diversity and location dispersed across the globe are frequently subject to these types of events. It is therefore important that the UGGps Management Plans contemplate strategies and actions in this framework, aiming at minimizing the impacts over residents and tourists, as well as protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the territory.
6.c Geological Hazards
Geological hazards (or “geo-hazards”) are one of UNESCO’s ‘Top Ten focus areas for Geoparks’. UNESCO says:
Many UNESCO Global Geoparks promote awareness of geological hazards, including volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, and many help prepare disaster mitigation strategies among local communities. Through educational activities for the local communities and visitors many UNESCO Global Geoparks give information on the source of geological hazards and ways to reduce their impact including mitigation and disaster response strategies. These efforts build important capacity and contribute to building more resilient communities that have the knowledge and skills to effectively respond to potential geological hazards (2030 Agenda SDG 11).
This commitment to build more resilient communities is most often expressed througheducational activities giving information on the source of geological hazards and ways to reduce their impact, including disaster response strategies. It must be recognised that as a result of geological and geomorphological processes, the vast majority are not preventable. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that, from the first moment, policymakers, local authorities and the communities themselves are aware and trained to prevent and minimize the impact of these occurrences, as well as to act appropriately in case of any geological hazard. In this context, Geoparks due to their territorial diversity and location dispersed across the globe are frequently subject to these types of events. It is therefore important that the Geopark Management Plans, where appropriate, contemplate strategies and actions in this framework, aiming at minimizing the impacts over residents and tourists, as well as protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the territory.
7. Case Studies
The case studies showcase Geopark-based research. The case study, from Ireland, shows how research can support wider Geopark messages. You can use aspects of these examples in your own Geopark setting by adapting to practical and cultural norms.
- Case Study 1 from Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark shows how research and the presence of a Geopark geologist carrying out their own work can have a positive effect promoting the Geopark and its important concepts to communities, visitors and the media.
- Case Study 2 Citizen science in the North Pennines AONB and Geopark