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Tuesday, 4 December 2001

Dorset's Jurassic coast is wonder of natural world

England should shortly be able to boast its own wonder of the natural world. The fossil-rich stretch of coastline from Studland Bay in Dorset to Exmouth in east Devon is expected to be named a World Heritage Site by Unesco next week. The so-called Jurassic Coast will be the first natural feature in England to be given the accolade, putting it on a par with the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands.

The 95 miles of coastline is unique: its fossils contain unbroken evidence of more than 180 million years of evolution. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, study of the coastal rocks helped to lay the foundations of the modern science of geology.

The 17 members of the World Heritage Committee, who meet in Helsinki next week, are being recommended to add two other sites to the existing 139-strong list: the spectacular alpine landscape around the Jungfrau in Switzerland, and three unique soda lakes in the Rift Valley in Kenya.

England has dozens of World Heritage cultural sites, including Stonehenge and the Georgian city of Bath. But there are only two natural sites in the UK: the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the island of St Kilda, off the Scottish coast.

Professor Denys Brunsden, a retired geomorphologist and chairman of the Dorset Coast Forum, which helped to submit the proposal, said that the area was already one of the most popular sites for fossil-hunters in Europe. “The rocks of Dorset and east Devon cover 180 million years of the earth’s history,” he said. “It really is a walk through time and shows the evolution of species from fish to dinosaurs to mammals.

“The coast has become the most popular area for school and university field trips, possibly in Europe. The rock formations are unique and straddle the entire Mesozoic time, which is divided in to the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.”

The oldest rocks, at Exmouth, date back about 235 million years; the youngest, at 65 million years, are Old Harry rocks near Swanage.

The fossils of the Dorset coast were brought to the attention of the world in the early 19th century when the most famous fossil hunter of all, Mary Anning, discovered the remains of the giant marine reptiles named ichthyosaurs on the beach at Lyme Regis. The discoveries have continued ever since. Professor Brunsden said: “Just recently some dinosaur footprints have been discovered on the Isle of Portland where they have never been seen before.”

Beside the fossils, the action of the sea has produced spectacular natural features such as Lulworth Cove and the arch at Durdle Door in Dorset. The World Heritage committee will consider a report on the coastline by Dr Paul Dingwall, an Australian geologist who visited Devon and Dorset earlier this year. “On paper it appears to be a very special place in geological terms — a treasure trove,” he said.

“It is a reference point for global geology.” He had one reservation: “Does it tell a geological story that is told nowhere else?”

Source: The Times TUESDAY DECEMBER 04 2001
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