Martin Gibling, professor

A day in the life

Martin Gibling, professor

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The outdoor field work is very interesting and important—it gives students observation skills away from the office.

Riverbed researcher

You won’t find Sawdonia growing in anybody’s backyard—or in the wild—nowadays. But you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Sawdonia fossils Professor Martin Gibling has in his office.

Embedded in layers of pale grey sedimentary rock, the darker grey plant fossils were found near Campbellton, New Brunswick (NB) and relate to Dr. Gibling’s current research.

“I’m looking at how the Earth changed when vegetation appeared,” he explains. “Everywhere in the modern world, there’s vegetation. Those plants have a profound effect on the landscape, binding it with their incredibly powerful roots, so sand and mud aren’t washed away by rains. But, before these plants came on the scene, landscapes were largely barren.”

“It’s not the kind of research where you can just take a chunk of rock and go analyze it,” he explains. “It requires a different methodology.”

In fact, gathering data about these 550- to 300-million-year-old rocks from river plains requires extensive travel. Dr. Gibling and his students have visited cliffs in nearly 30 diverse locations, including California's Death Valley; Northern France and the Channel Islands; the Canadian Arctic; and parts of NB and NS—like Joggins Fossil Cliffs.

Dr. Gibling says it has been “very productive” to be so close to Joggins, where the cliffs were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. “It’s my favourite field trip—and the students love it, too. The standing tree fossils are truly impressive.”

“You can see places on the cliffs where a channel filled in with sand—now, of course, it’s all rock. Alongside, fossilized trees are still standing in the positions they were preserved in,” he explains enthusiastically. “It’s really interesting stuff.”

Dr. Gibling takes students in his Sediments and Sedimentary Rock course to Joggins and other locations. Such field trips are crucial components of Dal's Earth Sciences program, he believes. In labs, students further hone their observational skills with microscope assignments, and do a sieving assignment, analyzing grains of beach sand.

“The Earth Sciences program is practical,” says Dr. Gibling. “You gain familiarity with field equipment and maps, it’s imaginative, it involves the history of the Earth, and personal observation of the Earth and its processes. And,” he adds, “you’ll be part of a small, closely knit community.”