Dick Gray, founder of the Freshwater Society, writes about the geological history of Earth, telescoped into the seconds and minutes of a single year.

Twenty-three years ago the Freshwater Foundation (now the Freshwater Society) sponsored a series of lectures on water in Minnesota.  I prepared and delivered the series, called Lakeology.

The 12 lectures were given on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. in the Wayzata Community Church auditorium.  The attendance was moderate to begin with, but by the 12th session, about 100 people showed up each week. Some mothers brought their children, and at least one of them has grown up to become a major environmental scientist at an eastern university. The lectures “turned on” many adult attendees to our natural Minnesota world.

Dick Gray
Dick Gray

The lectures covered the history of lakes and rivers of Minnesota, how the world and Minnesota were formed, and how the glacial age shaped the state’s topography and chemically determined the nature of our waters and soils in different areas of the state.

To better understand the development of our world and its part called Minnesota, I concocted a calendar of 12 months, with January 1 being 00:00:01, the first second of the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the start of our world. Modern humans’ place in the world occupied the last second of the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the historical year — December 31 at 23:59:59.

Opinions vary as to how and when our world of today came into existence, but in general, birth by “a big bang” or otherwise occurred some 5 billion years ago.  By a complicated amalgam of chemistry, heat, pressure (and some say pure luck) the material of the eventual earth coalesced into the “roundness” that astronauts have viewed from space.

When Earth’s history to date is condensed into 12 months, the first six months , the start of geological Azoic Era, 5.0 billion to 2.3 billion years ago, had no life that we know of.  The oldest rocks to be found in Minnesota from that period occur in the Minnesota River Valley.

The month of July in that calendar, 2.3 billion to 1.9 billion years ago, was the start of the so-called geological Archeozoic Era, which saw the origin of life in the form of primitive sea plants. Even today our world is covered with more than 70% water, most of which is salty.

Historical August, 1.9 billion to 1.5 billion years ago, yielded the oldest fossil bacteria that have been identified in rocks of the North Shore of Lake Superior.

In historical September, 1.5 billion to 1.15 billion years ago, there was much mountain activity and the formation of sea bottoms with thick limestone deposits.

In historical October, the start of the geological Proterozoic Era, 1.15 billion to 765 million years ago, thick iron, nickel and copper deposits were formed.

In historical November, the start of the geological Paleozoic Era, 765 to 384 million years ago, the first worms, fish insects and frogs appeared.  I have early fossils of Orthoceras, 400 million years old from Morocco.

In the first 15 days of historical December, 384 to 205 million years ago, the first reptiles, trees, dinosaurs and mammals appeared.

From historical December 16 through 25, the start of the geological Mesozoic Era 205 to 76 million years ago, the first birds, flowers and pine-like trees appeared, according to fossil records.

From historical December 26 through 29, the start of the geological Cenozoic Era, 76 to 25 million years ago, wooly animals, Wyoming horses and African elephants show up in the fossil records.

On historical December 30, just 25 to 12.7 million years ago, Western mountains, Colorado redwoods and elephants in North America appeared.

On historical December 31, before 7pm, more mountains and camels appeared, and volcanic action was rampant.

On historical December 31 at 7p.m., some 2.7 million years ago, great glaciers, the first evidence of man and the first tools appeared.  At 11 p.m., 532,000 years ago, glaciers were present, humans first used fire and there were mastodons and tigers in California.  At 11:59 p.m.,  9,000 years ago, humans developed further,  lakes formed, and bison, American lions and tigers appeared, according to fossil records.

On historical December 31, between 11:59:00 p.m. and 11:59:55 p.m., from 9,000 years ago to 735 years ago, we had the first use of bronze and later iron, the development of the alphabet, the development of  astronomy, the birth of Christ, the end of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the growth of churches, European settlement of the new world. Maps, the concept of gravity and the use of calculus became part of an emerging civilization.

Over the past  174 years, our world has seen overwhelming population growth and the development of  large cities, autos, planes, transistors, nanotechnology, computers and stem cell techniques.

Now, on December 31 at 23:59:59, what must we do in the last second? Conserve and do something about maintaining our lakes, rivers, aquifers, wetlands and all other water sources.

Minnesota alone has 15, 291 lakes — yet we tend to forget Water is Life.  There is no substitute for water. Water is still cheaper than dirt.  Here we have something that is the most precious thing on Earth to us and we tend to take it for granted.

Let’s conserve, preserve and protect our waters.  It’s in our own best interests.


Richard G. Gray, Sr., D.Sc.