Nature Labs – A Great Way to Learn Geography

Lonar Lake. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many streams of knowledge, especially natural sciences such as Physics and Chemistry require laboratories for experiments and practical knowledge of the subject. Geography too needs laboratories for geological and climate studies. In the recent times, sophisticated technology labs are used for GIS and remote sensing. 

However, nature labs are not something we create in a room with apparatus, equipment or technological infrastructure; they are created by natural events and have a larger periphery that extends in the nature, outside the scope of traditional labs. 

Geomorphology, the study of earth’s sculpture is directly related to these natural events. It is the study of natural cycles which prevail on the earth and work ceaselessly. They keep changing the surface of the earth and produce beautiful features. Prominent amongst them are Lithological and Hydrological cycles (rock and water). They are called denudation agents. Although they operate at gradual speeds, they bring remarkable changes on the surface and create phenomenal geographical features. 

These features are found across the globe and many of them are found at numerous locations in India. Lack of awareness about them along with the new wave of ‘nature tourists’ who visit these unique locations purely for their recreational value are, knowingly and unknowingly, disturbing their original ecosystems. These places are extremely vital; they act like data centres, giving information and evidence of geographical events that took place thousands, or sometimes millions of years ago. As students and common tourists, there is, in fact, a lot to learn from these fine specimens of nature, termed as ‘nature laboratories’.

Take, for instance, the Lonar lake. The Lonar meteoric (salt) lake, located at Lonar in Buldhana district of Maharashtra, was identified in 1823 by C.J.E. Alexander, a British officer. Today, the Lonar lake is understood to be the result of a meteoric, hyper-velocity impact crater that was created 47000 to 57000 years ago. Meteors are colloquially known as ‘falling stars’ (or ‘Ulka’ in Marathi). Lonar is the only extra-terrestrial impact crater found within the Great Deccan Traps, a huge basaltic formation in India. This oval shaped lake is 1.8 kms wide and 290 metres deep. Initially, it was considered to be a volcanic crater but is now recognized as an asteroid impact lake. The water is both saline and alkaline. The salinity of water is so high that salt layers can clearly be seen.

A large number of people visit this site, considering it as a sacred place due to a stream on a nearby hill, the source of which is named Gomukh. Due to the religious significance and the general ignorance about its geological significance, this beautiful nature lab ends up getting damaged by unaware tourists. Crowds bring commerce, and commerce, in turn, has other side effects for the lake. These side effects extend to thick forests surrounding the lake, which are exploited recklessly. Agriculture has led to massive deforestation in the surrounding areas. Despite attracting researchers from across the globe, the ordinary locals remain highly unaware of this natural marvel. Although government authorities have made some preservation attempts in recent times, a lot more remains to be done.

Another unique site located very close to the bustling metropolis of Mumbai is the Vajreshwari- Ganeshpuri hot water springs located near Bhivandi in Thane District. These hot water springs are groundwater emerging from volcanic rocks or basalt rock formations. The water flowing from springs is heated by geothermal energy, i.e. the heat produced from lower rock strata or the Earth’s mantle. The general temperature of rocks increases with depth. If water percolates deep enough into the crust and comes in contact with hot rocks, it gets heated in the course of its path. Wherever it finds outlets, it emerges in the form of hot springs. This water contains sulphur and is believed to be medicinally important for skin diseases. 

Harihareshwar in Raigad district in Konkan region is another remarkable nature lab. Surrounded by three hills, the coastline of Harihareshwar is a unique geographical site. On one side, there is a scarp – a wall-like rocky structure – and on the other is the actual beach. It is a peculiar coastline with evidence of geological movements as well as erosion by sea waves and depositional features. It is a good example of land submergence. There are very few places like the Harihareshwar beach, where sea cliffs are formed due to continuous attack of sea waves. This creates a spectacular pattern, which resembles a honeycomb, on the rock wall. Continuously hitting sea waves, along with air pressure and whirling waters within rock holes have created caves. The weathering patterns on the walls of the caves look deceptive and are called ‘Mayasabha’ in local language.

A number of self-formed rock structures that resemble a ‘Shivling’ are also found near the beach. This has added to the religious significance of the place, making it an important religious tourism destination in Konkan. Haphazard growth of tourism infrastructure is damaging this remarkable geographical phenomenon as well. In an ever-degrading situation, the question regarding preservation remains unanswered. 

As someone who has studied and taught Geography for more than three decades, I feel that such places should be declared as Nature Labs or Geographical Monuments. A mechanism needs to be established to identify such sites. Along with geologists, geographers and other experts, insights from locals would prove to be very useful in developing this framework. This will help in creating awareness within communities living around them, who can further sensitise tourists who visit these places. Funds can be raised at all levels of administration who will benefit from growing tourism in these areas. Multimedia-driven short courses can be framed for tour organizers and guides. A nominal entrance fee to these sites can also generate revenue for the locals living near these natural wonders. It is unreasonable to demand a complete blanket ban on tourism of any form. However, a more sustainable, financially viable and inclusive solution could be declaring these beautiful sites as Natural Labs and managing them efficiently with active cooperation from locals as well as tourists.

Dr Deepali Oak

Dr Deepali Oak is a geographer with expertise in Physical and Medical Geography. She retired as the HoD, Geography, Pendharkar College, Dombivli.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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