I recently attended the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Awards in Maskwacis, Alberta. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Russ Schnell. He is the Deputy Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Monitoring Division, in the United States. He grew up in the Battle River region and shared a fascinating story about discovering 70 million year old “Rosselia Worm Fossils” in 1958 in the bed of Castor Creek at the confluence of the Battle River.
Dr. Schnell was kind enough to allow me to publish a story he had written some years ago. I shot the video of Dr. Schnell as he was telling the story of how the fossils were formed.
The following story is adapted from the book “Stories from Life: Beauty Everyday As It happens”, 2016, Jane Ross ed., ISBN:978-0-9695841-2-4, Friesens Books, Altona, Manitoba, 325 pages (for a copy contact: Jane Ross <firstname.lastname@example.org>).
Petrified Buffalo Hearts, Indian Maiden Breasts, Stalagmites and 70 Million Year Old Worm Poop
By Dr. Russ Schnell, B.Sc., Ph.D., Dr.Sci. (Hons).
It was a Saturday in August 1958. The summer day was hot up on the open prairie in east-central Alberta. The air was much cooler in the narrow valley, especially in the shadows. And most of the valley was in shadows from trees growing on the rims above the sandstone cliffs.
The rock was stored in my parent’s garage for 50 years until I brought it to Colorado, USA, where I now live.
About 1:00 PM, the noon wiener roast was over and we had waited the obligatory one hour after eating before going swimming. Everyone knew that you would get cramps and drown otherwise! No matter that the water was only 4 feet deep at the deepest, and then only behind the beaver dams. And that the water was to cold to do much other than dip a few times, dog paddle for 10 feet, then shout out that it was “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”1 and splash to shore and stand around a smoky campfire of poplar branches. It was too early in the day for mosquitoes, and even if they had been out, the eye-burning smoke would have kept them away from our tender, lily white bodies. Only our faces, necks and arms were tanned from spending every possible hour outside playing, hiking, swimming and riding bikes over the 20 square mile area of grasslands and creek valleys we considered our “territory”.
On this day, walking in the water bare footed on the bedrock, we would occasionally feel smooth, rounded, tapered stones under the water. We recovered some of these “stones” which were very heavy for their size and that appeared to be composed of iron. At least they looked the colour of rusted iron!
No one seemed too concerned that the sparks from the fire could ignite the surrounding dry grass and possibly spread for miles. Hey, we were six 9-12 years old boys, friends since toddlers, invincible, girls yet to be discovered, having another boy’s day out along the creek, 2 miles from Castor town. We stood naked, dripping and shivering, occasionally stirring the fire back to life to keep warm while roasting (flaming) marshmallows on slender willow switches we had cut and peeled earlier on which to roast the wieners.
1. “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” is possibly an old naval saying. A monkey was a brass plate with holes in which iron cannon balls were stacked. When it got very cold the brass would contract more than the iron cannon balls and therefore the balls would pop out and roll off the brass monkey! Of course we did not know that then. We had heard older boys make the “brass monkey” statement when they were around girls who would giggle, so we thought it was “big” to talk like that.
Before roasting the wieners, we had played “stretch”, a game where two boys stand facing each other then throw a hunting knife to stick no more than 2 inches to the side of an opponent’s bare foot. If the knife stuck in the ground and was not more than the allowed 2 inches away, the recipient of the thrown knife moved his foot to touch the blade and then took a turn throwing his hunting knife to stick near the foot of the first thrower. The game ended when one person’s legs could no longer stretch further apart, and that person was declared the loser. There were always losers, never winners! All boys carried hunting knives in hip scabbards that summer. It was the thing to do.
A more imaginative member of the group said they felt like fossil Indian maiden breasts.
Now, to a pivotal juncture in this story. One reason we played in this particular part of the valley was that the creek had cut through to bedrock making it easy to cross on a solid rock footing. In most other stretches of the creek, the bottom was soft mud into which you would sink up to your knees or deeper. On this day, walking in the water bare footed on the bedrock, we would occasionally feel smooth, rounded, tapered stones under the water. We recovered some of these “stones” which were very heavy for their size and that appeared to be composed of iron. At least they looked the colour of rusted iron! They were conical in shape and every one had a well formed, round indentation on the apex. On the broad end there was generally (but not always) a finger size hole near the centre. The stones varied in size from a large potato to a small watermelon.
Since we found the heart shaped rocks at the base of a cliff we “knew” was an Indian buffalo jump, some of us thought they were petrified buffalo hearts. Supporting this supposition was the fact that one of the group had found a black, perfectly shaped, sharp, fluted arrowhead near the creek on a sandy path worn by deer coming down the valley wall to cross the creek. A more imaginative member of the group said they felt like fossil Indian maiden breasts, not that any of us could confirm how a maiden’s breast felt. One such “petrified buffalo heart”, presented upside down, is shown below.
I took one of the “buffalo hearts” home in my backpack wondering, occasionally, over the hour hike back to town, why I was carrying a rock that was so heavy. The rock was stored in my parent’s garage for 50 years until I brought it to Colorado, USA, where I now live.
But, I digress from the timeline. On the hike back to town our ragtag group diverted to look at the body of a dead cow lying in a pasture. We had discovered it a few days earlier and were interested in looking at it again. On the discovery visit, the cow must have been dead for only a few days. It was bloated like an overextended balloon, there were flies buzzing around the mouth, eyes and anus, but otherwise the cow was as if sleeping on its side like a horse. On this second visit, the carcass was less bloated, but to our great surprise had been completely hollowed out from the rear.
There were no intestines, no lungs, no heart, no stomach, no blood. The interior cavity was dry as dust, the hide was intact and the “roasts” were still on the thighs. We surmised that coyotes had devoured the soft insides by chewing from the butt end into the body cavity.
Within a few minutes, he printed out a copy of a scientific paper on ancient marine worms that made burrows in the seafloor and left imprints of their existence.
Before leaving the carcass we convinced, cajoled or otherwise enticed the youngest boy, who wanted to be part of the “big boys” group, to play “coyote” and crawl into the interior of the cow. He did so to our great amusement as we beat on the hide covered ribs stretched taut like a large reddish drum. When we returned to the carcass a week or so later, it was picked apart and remnants were being pecked at by magpies. What meat remained was a seething mass of white maggots.
Fast forward 50 years to 2008. By this time I knew that the conical rock was not a petrified buffalo heart or a maiden’s breast. I was a slow learner! I was now convinced though that the rock was a stalagmite formed by iron rich water that had dripped onto a cave floor over thousands of years. I looked on the Internet for similar stalagmites, but did not find any. Still, sure of my analysis, I wrote a letter to the director of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta enclosing photos, and described where these “stalagmites” were found and asking how old they were. I wrote the letter on heavy, expensive looking stationary with an official U.S. government letterhead festooned with gold embossed logos, and signed with a number of titles. I figured that might get his attention and a response.
A few weeks later I received an email thanking me for the letter and photos, and suggesting that the “stalagmite” was possibly a random iron accretion. Although not a paleontologist or geologist, I still believed that this rock was made by a deliberate, not random process. After further correspondence, Dr. David Eberth, Senior Research Scientist, Royal Tyrrell Museum, agreed to meet in Castor, Alberta in late June, 2009, and to come to the valley to look at what I still believed were stalagmites. I flew up from Colorado and David, myself, a sister and 5 friends from Castor proceeded out to the valley now owned by another friend from toddler days. He took us to an area of the creek where there were many of the “stalagmites” and we each collected a few specimens. David asked to see an exposed cliff so he could possibly find some of these iron rocks embedded in their natural habitat. Gary Dunkle, the land owner, duly took us to such an embankment and David found a few of the conical rocks imbedded in a loose, grey, alkaline soil in an exposed cliff face.
Then he told us that a world authority on such creatures was Professor Murray Gingras ’95 B.Sc., ’99 Ph.D., Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, University of Alberta.
To my great surprise, the “stalagmites” were oriented conical point down in the cliff face. This is not how stalagmites form! David now lost some of his prior cool composure, as he convinced me that my earlier conjectures were incorrect, that we were looking at a 70 million year old seashore deposit, and these iron accretions had probably once been made by something related to the seashore.
In a humorous throwback to events 50 years earlier, one of the fossils that David had excavated became dislodged and rolled down the steep cliff splashing into the creek behind a beaver dam. We convinced Eric Neilson ’88, B.Sc. Agriculture and ’09, B.Ed. and now a local school teacher, to wade into the water and retrieve the fossil. The water was over four feet deep and Eric had to fully submerge to finally locate and recover the fossil that was embedded in silt. There was no fire to get warm and dry beside this time!
We returned to the insurance and real-estate offices of Dale Emmett, one of the members on this current expedition, where David used a computer to begin looking up something called “Rosselia” on the Internet. Within a few minutes, he printed out a copy of a scientific paper on ancient marine worms that made burrows in the seafloor and left imprints of their existence. Then he told us that a world authority on such creatures was Professor Murray Gingras ’95 B.Sc., ’99 Ph.D., Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, University of Alberta. Small world!
We departed the office in triumph and sojourned to a nearby bar where Ed Ries, a local rancher and another member of the days’ expedition, bought us a round of beer to toast our success. While at the bar, Brenda Scott ’73, B.Ed. (sister, also on the excursion) brought out some perfectly preserved fossil snails that she had collected the day prior in a nearby fossil bed. David was quite interested, as these were fresh water snails that rarely fossilize into such perfect iron accretions. He wanted to know where they are found, but we declined to tell him as only a few members of our family know the location, and we do not want the location to be picked over. Someday we might show him, but that will be another story.
So how did worms living in the sediment in a 70 million old marine seashore make 8 pound “petrified buffalo hearts?” First, the worm is not like the garden variety earthworm one finds digging in Alberta garden soil. Instead it was thought be an elongated creature (let us say about one foot long) living vertically in seabed sediment with tentacles that could spread out over the seafloor to capture small organic particle or small creatures touching the tentacles. A stylized depiction of the worm and its burrow is shown below.
The fossilized worm burrow lay at the bottom of the ocean for eons becoming covered by many feet of sediment.
The worm would slide down into its burrow to digest its meals, to poop and to get away from predators. To accommodate the poop, it would push out the sides of its vertical tube home which was probably easy to do as it was living is soft sediment. Eventually the worm would die or move on to a new home leaving the organic evidence of its existence within its seabed home.
Now for the rare events that produced the “petrified buffalo hearts” and exposed them for observation today. At some point 70 million years ago, the organic-rich waste in the worm hole was brought into sustained contact with a freshwater stream carrying dissolved iron compounds. This iron slowly fossilized the poop and food detritus. The fossilized worm burrow lay at the bottom of the ocean for eons becoming covered by many feet of sediment.
Eventually the land rose and the fossils were exposed by the Castor Creek that eroded through an uplifted area of the former beach. Some of the exposed fossils settled on bedrock where they are found today. Others are still slowly sinking in the muck at the bottom of the creek.
The Castor Rosselia fossils are rather rare in that they are well formed, well preserved iron accretions, and in the words of Dr. Gingras in an email to Dr. Eberth and copied to me, he states: “Rosselia are normally much smaller than the cannon-balls you show”.
And so we come full circle in a small valley in East-Central Alberta; cannon-balls to cannon-balls.
Dr. Russ Schnell, Deputy Director, NOAA, Global Monitoring Division, Boulder, CO
Russ was born and raised in Alberta, Canada and educated at the Universities of Alberta; Newfoundland; Hawaii; Wales; Wyoming and Colorado. He holds degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Atmospheric Resources and Atmospheric Science.
Dr. Schnell discovered biological ice nuclei in 1970 now used in ski hill snowmaking worldwide, and by their removal on plants, prevention of frost damage to -3C. These nuclei are important in precipitation formation with papers from around the globe now being published on the topic.
His research, as Director of the Arctic Gas and Aerosol project in the 1980s, established that Arctic Haze was air pollution from Eastern Europe. For 7 years he was director of the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, where the steady global increase in carbon dioxide that forms the backbone of the greenhouse gas atmospheric warming, was established.
He has conducted research on ozone destruction in the Arctic and Antarctic, ozone production from fossil fuel production and on the changing chemical composition of the atmosphere driving climate change.
He has published 125 scientific papers, nine of them in Nature, a premier scientific journal, and holds patents in plant science and biochemistry.
Russ has lived, traveled or worked in 92 countries, and on every continent including the North and South Poles.
In 2002, he received the NOAA Administrator’s Award for his work as director of the Mauna Loa Observatory.
In 2007, Dr. Schnell was recognized as one of the co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In 2008, he was awarded the U.S. Department of Commerce Silver Medal the highest honorary recognition the Department bestows and in 2011 both the NOAA Distinguished Career and the NOAA OAR Outstanding Science Communicator Awards.
Dr. Schnell’s non-work interests include building wooden trains for children, “Little Free Libraries” for donation and real-estate investing.
He grew up near the Battle River in East Central Alberta. I met him while attending the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Awards held in Maskwacis, AB on September 21, 2019.
Open letter to Canadians opposing Canadian pipelines and oilsands
Demian Newman is President of Newman Sales and Marketing Inc. based in Calgary.
Dear fellow Canadians,
I’m writing this as an open letter to every Canadian who has protested the Canadian oil and gas industry. I’m writing this to ask – what if you win? What if you succeed and completely shut down Canada’s oil and gas industry? What happens next?
Obviously, if you’ve ever marched, protested or argued against Canadian pipelines or Oilsands, you must believe that you are financially insulated from the hundreds of billions this industry puts into the Canadian economy. Or you are OK with the crushing blow to the Canadian economy, because your heartfelt belief is that the Canadian oil and gas industry is so environmentally bad for the planet.
These are the people I desperately want to have a conversation with.
I write this letter, not as a Calgarian, Albertan, or even as a Canadian. But I write this as a human being. A human being with two young children, and one who doesn’t go a day without being concerned about how we’re leaving this planet.
So, let’s say that all the anti-Canadian pipeline and oilsands campaigns finally crippled this industry, to a point it can’t rebound. Which feels like a real possibility these days. But what is not just a possibility, but a reality, is that Canadians without their own oil and gas industry would still consume the same amount of energy.
And as Canadians continue to consume 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, the amount we need to import from foreign countries would rise from the current 56%, to 100%. And as completely confused as I already am that we currently import 850,000+ barrels of oil per day, while having the 4th largest reserves in the world. I have absolutely no idea how anyone can think importing an additional 650,000 barrels a day is better for Canada or the environment?
Let’s start with where it’s coming from, with Canada importing 61% from the US, 12% from Saudi Arabia, 6% from Azerbaijan, 5% from Norway, and 4% from Nigeria. I’m going to skip past each of these countries environmental, safety, employee and human rights track records, as there’s no point defacing them when Canada’s oil and gas industry is the world leader in all of these. And I’ll expand on this later, but I thought for arguments sake, we can pretend all these countries have the same standards as Canada.
How could it possibly be more environmentally positive to drill oil in the Middle East, pipeline it to their ports, tanker it 10,000+kms across the ocean, and then deliver it to Canada? Remembering that we have it right here.
So, you’ve won, and there’s no more of what you believe is “dirty oil”. And now we’re importing an additional 650,000 barrels a day into Canada. Let’s not forget, that the 5% of the world’s oil production which Canada currently produces daily, would need to be replaced, or prices would inflate and everyone across the globe would have to pay more at the pumps. And more for the 1,000’s of items manufactured from oil.
But don’t worry about the extra cost, as no other country has an anti oil industry campaign against them, that has stopped or slowed them down like Canada has. And with technology getting better every day, Canada’s 5% worldwide production amounts will be easily replaced.
And let’s go full circle to the Canadian’s protesting new Canadian pipeline projects. If we eliminate our own industry, and we’re importing 650,000 extra barrels of oil daily, we’ll have no other choice but to build new pipelines and facilities to bring this additional oil from the US pipelines and foreign tankers.
So, wouldn’t that be an ironic punch in the face. Where Canadians protesting Canadian owned and operated pipelines, end up shutting down all the investment it takes to move Canadian resources through Canadian pipelines. Just so we are forced to build pipelines and facilities to move more foreign oil into Canada.
And I mentioned that we’d pretend all countries have the same environmental requirements and standards when exploring and developing their natural resources. But it isn’t even close.
You can Google articles with examples of Canada’s environmental standards in this industry, versus any other country. But instead, do yourself a favour and ask someone who’s worked in Canada’s oilpatch, and around the world. Every one of them has countless stories of horrendous environmental issues abroad, which haven’t been allowed in Canada in 30+years (or ever).
So, let’s look at what Canada’s environmental standards are for this industry. And by that, I mean you should go look it up. Don’t take my word for it, but find some reputable publications and factual documents, and not someone’s rambling blog.
Look it up, and please let me know if I’m wrong. Because as much as I needed to write this letter, to get a few things off my chest. I also wrote it, as I believe everyone needs to do better at having a conversation about climate change, the environment, and our responsibility to all do better.
So, I welcome the opposing opinion, as I don’t know why this topic has become a name calling divisive shouting match, where no one will listen to the other side.
But while I have you here, I did want to throw out a couple specific projects, and how protesting them doesn’t make any environmental sense to me. One is Energy East, and the other is BC LNG. The first one is dead, but my fingers are crossed that it can be revived. The second is still approved, for now.
If you look at a map of Canadian pipelines, there is no major pipeline going from Alberta to the east coast of Canada. This means that almost every drop of gas in every vehicle east of Winnipeg is from refined foreign oil. The amount of oil that would’ve travelled on the Energy East pipeline is almost the same amount of oil that we import from Saudi Arabia every day (roughly 100,000 barrels a day).
But what if we didn’t protest Energy East, and instead told the Premier of Quebec that he cannot block a national pipeline. Eastern Canadians would’ve paid (at a minimum) $10-$15 less per barrel than they are currently paying for Canadian oil versus foreign oil. But there was also the billions (not millions, but billions) in revenue that each province would receive from this pipeline running oil through their province.
And I know we’re focusing on the environment, and not the financial benefits of Canada’s oil and gas industry. But, the trick with clean energy and technology, is that it takes money to develop and get to market. So I could be wrong, but I’m almost certain that not one oil company would’ve been upset if Quebec hadn’t killed this pipeline, but instead, took their multi billions a year in revenue from it, and invested all of it into new clean energy technology.
Another thing I encourage you to Google, is the amount of new clean energy technology that has been developed by, and for, Canada’s oil and gas industry.
So, Energy East would’ve taken the amount of Canadian oil, which they are already buying from foreign countries, while generating a ton of money for Canada/Canadians. And then that money could’ve been invested into renewable green energy development. But, Climate Change is a world wide problem, not just a Canadian one. So, as crazy as this might sound, I do believe that BC building facilities to ship Canadian liquid natural gas (LNG) to the world, could have an incredibly positive carbon emissions net benefit.
Currently, China alone has over 700 super coal plants. Just one of them emitting almost as much CO2 as the entire Canadian Oilsands (this is easy to look up). So, what if we could help China get their energy from Natural Gas instead of Coal, as it’s WAY better for the environment. (Side note – also look up Natural Gas and its carbon footprint, as I find very few people realize that it has been unfairly lumped in as a dirty fossil fuel).
And very quickly, I would like to address how we got here in the first place. Why is the perception of Canada’s oil and gas industry so bad across the rest of Canada?
The industry really must start by looking inward, as it has done a very poor job of promoting itself and the strides it’s made over the years. And it can still improve. As can all of us individually.
Because who outside of the industry knows that the Oilsands greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 29% since 2000. Or that a barrel of oil sent from the Oilsands to a refinery on the US Golf Coast has a smaller carbon foot print than a barrel of oil traveling from an oil well in California (it’s small difference, but it’s still better).
And to understand why it’s tough for this industry to promote itself – it is Canadian after all, which explains a lot about its uncomfortable feelings towards self-promotion. And I’ve met a ton of extremely intelligent and thoughtful engineers, geologists, accountants, and tradespeople in this industry, but I’ve never met a Public Relations person – and if there is one, they are very underfunded.
Who is not underfunded, are the groups who make an extraordinary amount of money from Canada not being able to get its natural resources to other customers (the US is our biggest customer at 99%, which is a percentage no business can survive with). And you can’t blame these people for making money off Canada’s inability to build pipelines. But, how they’ve done it, by spending hundreds of millions on PR campaigns to smear Canada’s industry, and pitting us against each other, is beyond is infuriating.
If you only look up one item, please do some research on how openly organizations have been about making donations in the name of the environment, which only target one country’s oil industry. This has made a lot of headlines lately, but I’ve read national Canadian media articles investigating this as far back as 2010.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that I tried my best to use as few statistics as possible, as I’ve seen arguments get derailed with debates on stats. As if the $80 million that Canada losses every day due to no pipeline capacity, is any different if its $40 million or $100 million. It’s a lot of millions, that have turned into billions. And it’s costing hundreds of thousands of good hardworking Canadians financial hardship.
And if it saves the environment, and the planet, then there certainly is an argument for it. But if it’s not helping at all, and potentially harming the planet. Then everyone needs to get educated on all the facts and start to talk to each other about a real solution. And get our industries, politicians, and every Canadian on board with a solution that works.
And please, please, please, don’t take your information from this subject off some rogue website, that’s for or against my stance. Take the time to get your facts from vetted and fact checked publications.
No one should get their facts from a nameless person shouting on the internet. So, my name is Demian Newman, and the two kids I’m leaving this planet to are Olivia and Liam. And both of them need to grow up in a country which is thriving as a world leader, both economically and environmentally – as anything less would be un-Canadian.
p.s. If you don’t have time to look up information on everything I’ve mentioned above. Here are a few links:
This first one is on personal energy use and personal accountability. Fun fact: If each of us does a better job to minimize our individual carbon footprint, the industries selling it won’t need to produce as much. Scary fact: literally every economist has said we will use more energy each and every year. This article does a good job expanding on that.
Newman Sales and Marketing Inc is a full service sales and marketing firm representing independently owned and operated oilfield service companies.
Originally published January 2019
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