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Interview: Tanya Inks, geophysicist, children’s author

10 May 2024

‘Generally, if we improve the human condition, the earth’s condition will follow’


I live in the state of Colorado, which has the Rocky Mountains. I’ve always loved the outdoors and the rocks, which are so spectacularly displayed here.

When I was a girl, I had a few drawers full of small rocks that I had collected during our family trips to the mountains and elsewhere in the US, and my fourth-grade teacher took us on a field trip to Red Rocks Park, where a geologist and a botanist talked to us about the park’s wonders.

I’ve done chiefly energy-related research. I’ve written papers on methane-gas hydrates, which reside in and under the permafrost in Alaska and elsewhere, in conjunction with the US Geological Survey and the US Department of Energy. I’ve also researched and written about stresses in the earth: how to measure them, and how they relate to faulting and fracturing in the subsurface. Much of my research has been with companies related to the oil and gas industry.

The most exciting thing about the earth is its dynamic, ever-changing nature. Examples include the mid-ocean ridge, or “spreading centre”, where approximately 20cm a year of new ocean floor is created from molten lava. In Iceland, this spreading centre is exposed at the surface, where you can watch this happen. I love the big island of Hawaii, where you can see the effect of an ocean-floor “hot spot” that still produces new islands over time. Not in my time or your time, but in God’s time.

Colorado School of Mines is primarily for the study of energy and mineral engineering, and I enjoy going back and mentoring graduate students who are researching new technologies important for the future of the earth sciences. One recent example is using fibre optics, which intrigues me because of their potential for a wide range of near-surface and subsurface measurements and surveillance applications.

I’ll answer your question with a question. Hasn’t the earth’s condition, and everything on it, been a result of the sin of humankind since Adam and Eve? That won’t change until the end of time. Worry is useless unless it creates action. If you see something that affects you personally, do what you can to help. Generally, if we improve the human condition, the earth’s condition will follow.

We all need to be stewards of the earth in our own corners of the world. The most significant environmental disasters occur where there is poverty, because, if we’re poor, our priority is to stay alive, not to be good stewards. Improving overall quality of life in areas with extreme poverty would create noticeable environmental improvements.

Technology can improve the world we leave for our children, but misapplied technology can create more problems than it solves. Sometimes, we must wait for innovation to happen rather than forcing it.

We’ve been affected by so-called solutions pushed on us by our government — solutions without appropriate science to back them up. Like electric cars: batteries, the components of batteries, and the disposal of batteries are a much bigger issue than using clean-burning natural gas. Here, in the US, we have stringent emissions regulations that have nearly zeroed emissions from the production and use of natural gas. Batteries, however, require mining rare and sometimes hazardous minerals, which must be disposed of properly when the battery’s no longer viable.

The price of energy, in general, rises because the government’s trying to force a solution that is not ready for public use. Because of artificial mandates, some areas experience rolling blackouts. These mandates affect everyone, but they’re especially harnful to vulnerable people, the elderly and infirm.

The fairies in my books for children have simple struggles, adventures, and joys like ours. These are stories I told my daughter, Sammie, at bedtime from the time she was born.

She was an advanced reader by the time she went to first grade; so I had trouble finding stories that were more advanced but still age-appropriate. During Covid, I had free time to write these books, and decided to learn how to do watercolours. The painting and stories were a natural fit. I made these stories appropriate for parochial schools or home schooling, where study questions and an abridged dictionary could help eager learners like Sammie read independently.

The fairies come from my imagination, but they’re not magic. They don’t have special powers. Learning how to deal with our problems is part of life. I believe God will help me through my struggles, and the outcome is up to him, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do my best to address them. Buttercup, Violet, and their friends learn about helping each other, having fun, accepting each other’s differences, and other life lessons. As Christians, we also do our best to help others with their struggles without losing track of our crucial joy: faith in Jesus Christ.

I think it’s fun to imagine fairies and other mythical creatures. Works of fiction can be good ways for children to stretch their imaginations, escape from fears, and learn about friendships. I try to show how the fairy friends help each other, even though they’re different from each other, with their own distinctive personalities.

I grew up in a Christian household in Colorado, and God was always there for me. My brothers and I enjoyed a happy family life, camping, and boating especially. We went to a Lutheran church, Bible studies, and youth-group activities.

I struggled, as many do, to keep that part of my life at college — for example, reconciling biblical teaching about the age of the earth with what I was learning in geology classes. However, after grad school, a wise pastor reminded me that God can do anything, and that his time and ours aren’t the same.

If geologists want to put rocks in a “filing cabinet” by millions of years, and that makes it easier to understand, why not let them? Proving dates for anything over long periods is challenging. There’s no direct evidence except what God tells us is true in the Bible.

I have more faith as I get older. In my twenties, I was involved in a serious car accident, and nearly died. Later, I had cancer, and, somehow, I wasn’t afraid. Both events drew me closer to God. I am less sad at funerals, because I know God exists, and I feel sorry for people who don’t have that promise in their hearts that there is more beyond death.

People who are angry if your opinion differs from theirs make me angry. Life is made up of compromise, and if you don’t learn that, you’ll be unhappy and unpleasant. I don’t compromise on my relationship with God, but, on this earth, we have to compromise with others to get things done.

I’m happiest when I’m with my family. Sammie’s getting married this year, and I’m thrilled that she made it through graduate school and has a good job that she loves and a good man to share her life with.

My daughter gives me hope for the future. She’s smart. She and others like her will figure out how to keep going.

I’m not in the “catastrophic” climate camp. The climate’s varied considerably over human history, even before the Industrial Revolution, and even more so over geologic time. The most important effects on climate are natural: solar activity, vulcanism, and the release of methane from hydrate seeps, none of which can be controlled by man. Rather than worrying about things we can’t control, we should focus our resources on things we can.

I pray every day for the health and welfare of my family. I pray that the fighting in the Middle East and in the Ukraine will come to an end soon. I pray that people who don’t know the love of Jesus will find him and find comfort in him like I have.

I’d want to spend more time with my great-grandfather, who was born in 1898 and died in 1992. I was very close to him, and I’d love to ask him about everything he saw in his lifetime — or maybe I’d talk to him about heaven. What is it like to meet Jesus, and God, and all who have gone before us?

Francesca Kay was talking to Terence Handley MacMath

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