The United Kingdom and Ireland pack so many geologically fascinating locations in a small area, it's hard to pick which ones are the most gorgeous, the most scientifically important, or even the most downright useful. Lucky for us, the Geological Society curated a list of the Top 100 Geosites.
Top image: Giant's Causeway tells a story of violent volcanic eruptions.
The Delabole Slate Quarry in Cornwall is interesting both economically and historically: the quarry has been operating continuously since the 15th century, making it the oldest working slate quarry in the United Kingdom.
After an initial call for nominations, the Geological Society has released its list of most geologically interesting locations in all of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The more than 400 nominated geosites were put to a vote, and paired down to the 100 most fascinating places for geotourism in the region. As for what "interesting" means, that's a delightfully broad concept, so broad that the society split the hundred geosites into ten locations reflecting different interpretations of the term.
A location could be deemed interesting if it is a landscape shaped underlaying geology and erosion, or it may be interesting because it's the location of notable industrial or economic importance. A geosite may be a place of particular historical importance, either on human timescales or geologic ones. It could be an educational site, a destination for lucky fieldtrips and photographed for countless lectures. It could be an adventurous spot, a bit of geoscience that's just flat-out awesome. Given our love for modifying our environment, a special category was made for geosites that overlap with human habitation. The final five categories most closely align with what you'd find in an introductory textbook: coastal, outcrops, folding and faulting, or rocks shaped by fire and ice.
Here is an example from each of the categories:
Cuillin Hills are a range of rocky mountains on the Isle of Skye composed of black igneous rocks: gabbro, which cooled slowly underground, and basalt, which erupted and cooled rapidly at the surface.
From the category description, a Landscape geosite is interesting because:
The UK and Ireland's stunning landscapes are shaped by the geology that underlies them, and its interaction with controls such as weathering and erosion. These sites illustrate the extraordinary range of interesting, unusual and spectacular environments and geomorphological features created by these processes.
Check out more Landscape geosites.
Industrial or Economic Importance Geosites
Tankardstown in County Waterford are volcanic rocks loaded with intense mineralization of at least 36 different minerals. This makes it an iconic mine, now preserved as the Copper Coast Geopark in Ireland.
From the category description, an Industrial and Economic Importance geosite is interesting because:
For centuries, we have depended on the ground beneath our feet – and on geological knowledge and skills – to provide a huge range of resources, to support development of transport systems and other infrastructure, and to power economic growth. Past economic activity has left a complex legacy with great potential to enrich our understanding of our planet, while the latest infrastructure projects depend on cutting edge geoscience to deliver public benefit.
Check out more Industrial and Economic Importance geosites.
Historical and Scientific Importance Geosites
Siccar Point in Berwickshire county is irreplaceable in the history of geoscience. James Hutton realized the mismatch in appearance — rocks with flat beds immediately adjacent to a folded mess — was a marker of erosion stealing some of the geologic history, leaving an unconformity.
From the category description, a Historical and Scientific Importance geosite is interesting because:
The UK and Ireland have a long history of world-leading geological research. These sites are some of the most important in the history of our science, from type localities to sites of historical controversies.
Check out more Historical and Scientific Importance geosites.
Countless fossils have been found in the cliffs and beaches of Lyme Regis in Dorset. Now a World Heritage Site, this was where palaeontologist Mary Anning found so many amazing creatures from times gone past.
From the category description, an Educational geosite is interesting because:
From museums to classic field trip locations, these sites are ideal places to find out more about geology and the history of our planet.
Check out more Educational geosites.
The island of Staffa in Scotland is entirely volcanic, with three distinct layers. The lowermost is tuff, the middle layer is crystalline basalt cracked into hexagonal columns during its slow cooling, and the top layer is basalt that cooled too quickly for crystals to grow.
From the category description, an Adventurous geosite is interesting because:
Whether it's climbing, caving, hiking, diving, or just the logistics of travelling to beautiful and remote places, these sites all present a particularly adventurous challenge!
The Geological Society does warn that this category by definition includes locations that are difficult or dangerous to access, or may require specialist skills, so before you go romping off on a field trip, seek out expert advice if appropriate, and be careful!
Check out more Adventurous geosites.
Human Habitation Geosites
The Ring of Brodgar is a neolithic henge and stone circle on the largest island in Orkney, Scotland. It is part of a World Heritage Site.
From the category description, a Human Habitation geosite is interesting because:
Humans have adapted the geosphere and used the resources it provides for thousands of years, to build settlements, monuments and works of art. These sites provide an opportunity to see evidence of our own history, as well as revealing fascinating geology, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.
Check out more Human Habitation geosites.
The Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk are both visually stunning and geologically fascinating. The lower, red rocks are the defining type section of the Hunstanton Formation, a limestone from the Lower Cretaceous. The top, white chalk layer is younger, from the Upper Cretaceous.
From the category description, a Coastal geosite is interesting because:
The UK and Ireland have stunning coastlines, featuring a wide variety of coastal geosites, including beaches, cliffs, coves and arches – perfect for a geological day out!
Check out more Coastal geosites.
Toad Rock west of Tunbrigde Wells has been collecting geotourists since the days when parasols were the must-have accessory. This particular outcrop demonstrates thick cross-bedding of fine and medium-grained quartz sandstones.
From the category description, an Outcrop geosite is interesting because:
Rock outcrops give us important information about geological structures, rock types and past processes. Good outcrops are key to geological mapping and understanding local geological history, and need to be protected from damage, for example as a result of irresponsible coring. This category contains some of the best!
A large number of the locations in this category come complete with photographs with geologists or their tools for scale.
Check out more Outcrops geosites.
Folding and Faulting Geosites
Milhook near Cornwall is an enormous exposure of recumbent chevron folds. The fault-bounded section features zig-zags are tipped sideways and even upside-down, indicating a complex geologic past of folding, tipping, and rotating.
From the category description, a Folding and Faulting geosite is interesting because:
Thought rocks were boring? Think again! From zig zags and chevrons, to crumples and folds, to fault planes and melanges, these sites are some of the best places to see evidence of the power of geological forces in shaping our landscape.
Check out more Folding and Faulting geosites.
Fire and Ice Geosites
The Cloch mor glacial erratic above Carlingford Lough was carried by a glacier to its present location.
From the category description, a Fire and Ice geosite is interesting because:
The UK and Ireland enjoy low tectonic activity and a temperate climate now, but we have had an explosive and, at times, very chilly history. From glaciations to volcanic eruptions, these sites represent some of the most dramatic events in our geological past.
Check out more Fire and Ice geosites.
Visiting The Geosites
A list like this is designed to awaken your itchy feet, sending you out on geologically-inspired tours of the British Isles. The Geological Society takes that unrepentant curiosity, and tweaks it up a notch by putting together regional bingo cards of geosites. The rules are simple: visit sites and appreciate the overwhelming natural beauty and wonder of our planet, and mark them off on your bingo card. Fill out a full line? Enter into the Geological Society's prize draw, and more importantly, brag mercilessly to your friends to spur them into their own geosite field trip.
The Top 100 geosites map is just asking for trouble: I've already planned three hypothetical road trips, and am fighting the urge to lose the entire day to planning a Top Gear style challenge blending geosite bingo with a travelling-salesman problem. Alas, I'm on entirely the wrong continent to play this game, which just means that it's time to put together a similar list of geologic wonders for North America!
Have you been to any of the Top 100 geosites in the United Kingdom and Ireland? Do you have a different favourite spot that didn't make the list? Where do you most want to visit?
All images courtesy of the Geological Society. For more pre-selected beauty, the BBC selected their favourite of the Top 100 Geosites in this gallery. This is Earth Science Week, a time to get immersed in our delicate planet. Check back all week for more geoscience goodness!