Canada’s Geoheritage Surge: Geoscience Heritage, Geoparks, Geosites, Geotourism


It’s here! “Four Billion Years and Counting: Canada’s Geologic Heritage”. Offered to you by the Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences for CAD$39.95 only – order your copy from Nimbus



IMG_2530  Sudbury shatterconesLeft: A fossil tree at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site (NS, Canada). Right: 1.8 billion year old shatter cones (result of an asteroid impact) at Sudbury (ON, Canada – photo Andy Fyon)

Here is a commonly heard complaint: “most citizens don’t know anything about earth science, because it’s not taught in school (and – in extension – therefore citizens don’t know the first thing about earth materials, natural hazards, climate change – fill in the blanks). I don’t buy that. A lot of subjects are not taught in school and most people are not completely ignorant about those (criminal law, orthopedic surgery, etc.).

There is earth science in the secondary school curriculum in Canada, although not a lot. I would love it if there was more, but then other subjects would have to give, and I ask you which ones? Imagine the endless battle that would ensue.  Not worth the energy. An unproductive exercise.

But why makes this a problem? We have the whole planet for a lecture room! Just stick your nose out the door, and there is something to learn about the earth, no matter where you live or travel. Put up a sign, build a trail, an interpretation centre, write a book or develop an app.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening slowly but surely over the last 15 years or so. I call it the Geoheritage surge. I’m not going to write its biography, but I thought it might be useful to list what we have in Canada. And – please! – if you see an omission, tell me and I’ll happily add it!

Also – I don’t really care what we call it. The term “Geoheritage” is popular here in Nova Scotia, because the province is in the process of creating a list of sites, which they call a Geoheritage list (more about it further below). Elsewhere in Canada people prefer the term “Geoscience Heritage” to treat the concept in parallel with built Heritage. “Geosites” is used somewhere else again – simply indicating a place where worthwhile earth science can be observed.  A “Geopark” is an area that meets certain criteria of the Global Geopark Network (more about this also below), etc.

Really, it doesn’t matter. Any initiative that celebrates places that teach citizens about earth history and earth materials, about the history of dealing with the earth and its materials (historic mines for example), it doesn’t matter. Any site that can be a destination for a field trip.

So here goes:

Canadian organizations that do earth science outreach 

The Canadian Geoscience Education Network (CGEN) “is the education arm of the Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences (CFES). CGEN is concerned with all levels of geoscience education in Canada and encourages activities designed to increase public awareness of geoscience”. CGEN is 100% volunteer-run and they are particularly focused on school teachers. CGEN has also developed the “Careers website” and the “Where Challenge” and coordinates EdGeo. EdGeo is responsible for organizing 1-week workshops and field trips for science teachers in the summer across Canada. The CGEN website has a separate page with resources especially for teachers, but it’s interesting for everyone who wants to know more.

This special 2009 issue of the “Geoscience Canada”, the Journal of the Geological Association of Canada, on geoscience outreach pioneer Ward Neal is open access (as are all their issues prior to 2011)

And here is a 2012 report on Canada’s Geoheritage efforts from one of Canada’s geoheritage champions, published in a CFES newsletter (a wonderful publication that seems to have expired).

Museums and interpretive centers: Fifteen museums and natural heritage centres cooperate and communicate efforts in the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada. In addition, there is: the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller (dinosaurs!) – see below.

Globally recognized Canadian sites

The UNESCO World Heritage designation is one of the world’s most prestigious. There are cultural and natural World Heritage sites. Canada has 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which 9 are natural sites and 8 are cultural sites. Of the natural sites, no fewer than 6 have been designated largely or exclusively because of their Geoheritage. These are:

  1. Canadian Rocky Mountain Park (AB/BC), which includes the late Precambrian Burgess Shale site and the dramatically fast retreating Athabasca glacier complex                                                                                                                     629-2902_IMG  629-2944_IMG Left: Mt Wapta, the site of the Burgess Shale Quarry in the distance. Right: the toe of the Athabasca glacier (in 2005) with a marker indicating its position 13 years earlier.    
  2. Dinosaur Provincial Park, home of the amazing Royal Tyrrell Museum – your best destination for cutting edge knowledge on Cretaceous dinosaurs. Tyrrell Albertosaurus  Tyrrell museum area _  Horseshoe Canyon  badlands Left: Albertosaurus model at the Royall Tyrrell Museum. Right: Horseshoe canyon near the Royal Tyrrell Museum: quick erosion helps to uncover Cretaceous fossils.                    
  3. Gros Morne National Park, which includes the official Cambrian-Ordovician Boundary at Green Point and the Precambrian Woody Point and Table Mountain ophioliteGSSP Green Point
  4. Joggins Fossil Cliffs, “the Coal-Age Galapagos” – a complete early Carboniferous coastal plain ecosystem that includes upright fossilized trees (picture at the top of this blog page).
  5. Miguasha National Park, representing the Devonian “Age of Fishes”.
  6. Kluane/Wrangell-St.Elias/Glacier Bay/Tashenshini-Alsek National Park, an impressive collection of modern glaciers on the Canada-US border.

Global Geopark Network

stonehammer logo           geoparks logo  tumblerridgeaspiringgeologo

Left: The logo of Stonehammer Global Geopark, located around Saint John, NB. Centre: the logo of the Global Geoparks Network. Right: the logo of the brand new Tumbler Ridge Geopark in BC. 

The Global Geopark Network was initiated under the umbrella of UNESCO but is not a UNESCO Program. It goes too far here to explain the difference. The important thing is that Geoparks are becoming popular venues for attracting tourists to geoheritage sites. Geoparks have sprouted like mushrooms in Europe and Asia (especially China and Japan), but not (yet) in North America where the only two recognized Global Geopark are Stonehammer Geopark, centered around Saint John (New Brunswick) and Tumbler Ridge Geopark in northern British Columbia. The Global Geoparks Conference 2014 was held in Saint John (see my post about that meeting here).

Stonehammer Global Geopark became enscripted in 2009 and celebrates a billion years of geoheritage through 12 sites in the greater Saint John area, which you can explore on foot, by bicycle in a kayak, or by ziplining!

Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark became official in September 2014. The town was only incorporated in 1981 when it grew up around a coal mine. When that closed 20 years later, the town went in decline, but then Dinosaur trackways were found and now the town is hoping to reverse its economic decline through its Geopark status.

There are efforts to create more Canadian Geoparks – these efforts are coordinated through Canada’s National Geoparks Committee, which vets Canadian Geoparks before the application is sent off to the Global Geopark Network for approval. The 2014 Global Geopark Conference (where Tumbler Ridge was voted in) took place in Saint John and I wrote about it here.

Provincial Geologic Highway maps

NS Geologic Highway Map

Geologic Highway maps are designed especially for the general public. They feature a (simplified) geologic map of the jurisdiction with the main highway system and notable stops with lots of explanation. They are still only in paper (or downloadable) format and badly deserve to be morphed into apps:

Geologic Landscapes highway maps of Northern and Southern British Columbia

What is the Yukon Territory made of? A wonderful publication – free downloadable pdf!

The Geologic Highway Map of Alberta can be ordered here

The Saskatchewan Geologic Higway Map can be ordered here

A geologic highway map for Manitoba is in the making

A geologic highway map for southern Ontario can be downloaded here and the one for northern Ontario is here.

The New Brunswick Geologic Highway map is out of print (I have one, it dates back to 1985 and really really deserves a new edition).

The Nova Scotia Geologic Highway map (pictured above) is a gem and can be ordered from the Atlantic Geoscience Society.

The Traveller’s guide to the Geology of Newfoundland and Labrador can be ordered here.

I could not find a geologic highway map or similar publication for Quebec, the NW Territories, Nunavut or Prince Edward Island. I hope that’s me – tell me!

Individual examples of geoheritage initiatives and communication across the country

British Columbia: Tumbler Ridge Dinosaur trackway and museum – Do note the comment below by Lisa Buckley, paleontologist at this museum. She lists the top 5 Fossil sites in BC

Yukon: The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre and The Dawson City / Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site

Alberta: The Earth Sciences Department of the University of Alberta has an outdoor rock interpretation garden


The Ottawa Gatineau Geoheritage Project promotes greater public knowledge and appreciation of the geology and related landscapes in and around Canada’s National Capital Region.

The Carleton University Department of Earth sciences has an active outreach coordinator: lots of information and events in and around Ottawa. The department’s emeritus professor Allan Donaldson has been active in geoscience outreach for a long time and started Friends of Canadian Geoheritage.

The Ottawa Riverkeeper website pays attention to Geoheritage

The Ontario highlands website has reams of Geoheritage activities, one of which is the iconic Metcalfe geoheritage park

Science North’s Dynamic Earth Centre, home of the iconic ‘Big Nickel’ in Sudbury is an amazing place to explore and learn about the Sudbury area geology and mining.

Greater Sudbury-20111109-00160_elisabeth_kosters_mia_boiridy_Dynamic_North_sudbury_Nov0911          Sudbury Phoenix                                Left: Examining mineral samples under the microscope with Dynamic Earth director Mia Boiridy (photo Andy Fyon). Right: Inside the Phoenix capsule in Dynamic Earth’s own mine! This is the capsule that was used to rescue the 34 miners in Chile in 2010

Book: “Ontario Rocks” is a well-researched treaty on three billion years of geologic history of Ontario, written for the general public.

Nova Scotia: The Department of Natural Resources (home of the ‘mineral resources division’ = geological survey) is working on a Nova Scotia Geoheritage list – work in progress.                                                                                                                                         The world famous light house at Peggy’s Cove is built on a unique granite outcrop and there are interpretation panels there. You can order the brochure here                                    The Fundy Geological Museum in Parrsboro celebrates the local geology, but especially focuses on the oldest dinosaur fossil site nearby (Wasson’s Bluff), which also features in PBS’s ‘Your Inner Fish’, the documentary based on the same book by American Paleontologist Neil Shubin (see also my post on Nova Scotia’s Blue Beach).

The Maritimes: Published by the Atlantic Geoscience Society in 2001, “The Last Billion Years” is “a geologic history of the Maritime Provinces of Canada”. This book was a national non-fiction National best-seller that year and hasn’t been out of print since. It serves as a model for  “Four Billion Years and Counting: a Canada’s geological heritage”, which came out in 2014 (I wrote a separate review of this book here).

512VV5B6TPL._SL500_ “The Last Billion Years” can be ordered from Nimbus



A totally unique and separate case: 

The International Appalachian Trail celebrates geoheritage along the entire length of the Appalachian mountain belt – yes, all the way into Europe!


About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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1 Response to Canada’s Geoheritage Surge: Geoscience Heritage, Geoparks, Geosites, Geotourism

  1. Lisa Buckley says:

    My personal Top 5 Fossil Sites in B.C.!
    1. Yoho and Kootenay national parks – 505 million year old Burgess Shale fauna, discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott. Fantastic soft-bodied preservation.
    2. Peace Region 250 – 225 million year old Triassic marine vertebrates – original home of Shoniosaurus (giant ichthyosaur) and home of Rebellatrix, the fork-tailed coelacanth. This is B.C.’s Dinosaur Provincial Park, as these deposits extend from southern B.C. up to the Yukon.
    3. Courtney-Comox Valley area for West Coast, 80 million year old marine fossils. Notable finds are elasmosaurs, mosasaurs, and fantastic ammonites.
    4. Back up to the Peace Region for 135 – 70 million year old terrestrial vertebrate tracks. Notable finds: a) Peace River Canyon, where dinosaur tracks were discovered in the 1920s and described in the 1930s. Designated as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1930s, but this designation was ignored/revoked for the construction of the hydroelectric dams; b) ~ 70 million year old tyrannosaur trackways, indicating (at least temporary) group behavior or at least conspecific tolerance (tyrannosaurs tend to carry on cranky, what with the face-biting evidence).
    5. Cache Creek (McAbee) and Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park areas – 50 million year old Eocene deposits that show such detailed preservation of anatomy and fauna/flora composition that researchers can figure out detailed climate information, food-webs, and evolutionary arms races of insects against insect predators!

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