Blog: How a UK geologist rocks at UNESCO

UNESCO Global Geoparks are areas with an internationally significant geological heritage that is managed holistically for protection, sustainable development and education. Geoparks not only focus on geology, but also bring together other aspects of natural and cultural heritage, all of which benefit the local communities that are central to any successful UK UNESCO designation.

At present, there are 127 UNESCO Global Geoparks around the world in 35 different countries. The UK has seven UNESCO Global Geoparks and has been instrumental in their global success; the UK continues to be a world leader in their development and evolution.

Kirstin Lemon from the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI), part of the British Geological Survey (BGS) tells us about her involvement:

In the summer of 2004, while completing a PhD at Durham University, my sister called,‘The Geological Survey is looking for a Geologist to work at the Geopark at Marble Arch Caves’, she said. My response was simple, ‘What’s a Geopark?’ Of course, by the time it came to my interview I knew a lot more, and in September 2004 I began my role as Geopark Geologist for the Marble Arch Caves, thus starting my adventure in Geoparks.

Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark

My role at Marble Arch Caves initially focused on Geopark development as a whole. Back in 2004, it was the first Geopark in the UK and one of only 17 across the world, so there was a lot of work to be done. This included site development, devising education resources and putting together the first-ever events programme.

Over the next four years, my role grew, and I became responsible for facilitating our most significant change to date, expansion across the international border with the Republic of Ireland. In 2008, Marble Arch Caves became the first international cross-border Geopark in the world.

Together with representatives from Qeshm Island UNESCO Global Geopark at Marble Arch Caves.

In time, I became more involved in community engagement, including delivering the Geopark Local Tour Guide Programme and working with local community groups to develop their Geopark sites. One of the most rewarding outcomes was developing shared education programmes that brought together schools from both sides of the border and facilitated them to work together in a safe and encouraging environment, something that had not always been possible due to Ireland’s troubled past.

The Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark

Geological Survey of Northern Ireland / British Geological Survey

In 2012, I moved back to the GSNI in Belfast, where I now look after a small team that includes geohazards, tourism and information delivery. Through this role, I have been able to develop a much more strategic approach to UNESCO Global Geoparks. I have also worked hard over the past few years to raise the awareness and understanding of them on a national scale within BGS and the UK geological community.

The UNESCO Global Geopark designation has sparked involvement from geoscientists, mainly through public engagement in major topical issues such as geohazards and climate change. This is an area in which I am particularly passionate. I am very fortunate that my job allows me to be involved in UNESCO Global Geoparks at multiple levels. This is beneficial to GSNI and BGS through both geological tourism and its positive impact on the economy, and also through the advancement of science and public engagement opportunities within the UK and internationally.

UK Committee for UNESCO Global Geoparks

Following the creation of the UNESCO Global Geopark designation in 2015, a much greater emphasis was placed on National Committees. I am Vice-Chair of the UK Committee for UNESCO Global Geoparks which has many roles including coordinating and assessing documentation for new applicants and providing support for all existing UNESCO Global Geoparks in the UK.

UK Committee for UNESCO Global Geoparks with the Kenyan National Commission for UNESCO at the North Pennines UNESCO Global Geopark in May 2017.

The Committee also provides assistance to other Member States that do not have UNESCO Global Geoparks and, as a result, no National Committee. At the most recent UK Committee for UNESCO Global Geoparks meeting in 2017, we welcomed a visit from the Kenyan UNESCO National Commission and assisted them in developing their own UNESCO Global Geoparks.

Sharing UK expertise with the Kenyan National Commission for UNESCO to help with best practice in setting up the first UNESCO Global Geopark in Sub-Saharan Africa

UNESCO Global Geopark Evaluation Team

In 2015, I became a member of the UNESCO Global Geopark evaluation team where I assist and attend on-site assessment or revalidation missions every summer. My work has taken me to both Brazil and Iran in recent years. My visit to Iran was particularly special. I was one of two women sent to carry out this mission, and we were delighted to be able to see the very successful women’s cooperatives that have been developed as part of the Qeshm Island UNESCO Global Geopark. I will never forget meeting these strong and determined women and sharing our stories from the UK and Iran, highlighting our differences and our many similarities.

Visiting one of Qeshm Island UNESCO Global Geopark’s many womens cooperatives during the UNESCO Global Geopark evaluation mission last year.

UNESCO Global Geoparks Council

In 2016, I was nominated by the Director-General of UNESCO as one of 12 voting members of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Council.

The Council is responsible for assessing revalidated and new UNESCO Global Geoparks as well as determining which applications should be forwarded to the Executive Board of UNESCO for endorsement. The Council also has a key advising role on the strategy and planning of UNESCO Global Geoparks. As part of this, Council members are asked to attend advisory missions for aspiring UNESCO Global Geoparks to provide guidance on their successful development. I was asked to attend one such mission this year and visited the Mudeungsan Area Geopark in South Korea alongside some international experts. Having worked in Geoparks for over ten years, I was able to share my experience with our South Korean colleagues who will use this information to ensure that they are fully prepared for their official assessment.

National news coverage from visit to Muduengsan, South Korea.

Conclusion

My experience and knowledge of UNESCO Global Geoparks are by no means unique within the UK and there are a number of us that work closely with various UNESCO Global Geopark Committees and individual UNESCO Global Geoparks on a regular basis. Indeed, many of the UK UNESCO Global Geoparks regularly welcome study visits from others around the world and even have twinning or ‘sistering’ agreements with them. Hopefully, this article will highlight the level of expertise that is available throughout the UK and the experience that is present for both existing and aspiring UNESCO Global Geoparks. Of course, the UK is fortunate in that we have a strong level of commitment from the UK National Commission for UNESCO and, together, we can continue to be world-class in developing and nurturing our UNESCO Global Geoparks.