National Geographic Society Newsroom

Exploring Earth’s wildest places to journey back in time

This is the first in a series of Voices posts by Dr Vivien Cumming, who explores remote regions of the world in search of photographically beautiful stories about how our planet works and the people who brave all nature throws at them to live in or study the natural world. Follow her blog here to...

This is the first in a series of Voices posts by Dr Vivien Cumming, who explores remote regions of the world in search of photographically beautiful stories about how our planet works and the people who brave all nature throws at them to live in or study the natural world. Follow her blog here to go on a journey with her from Arctic Canada to the Southern Ocean.

They are usually grey, of variable hardness — you hopefully wouldn’t throw one at someone’s head! Sometimes they sparkle or contain a rainbow of colors. They don’t move unless pushed (by you or one of Earth’s many uncontrollable natural forces) and they make up the entire surface of our planet. You may have guessed what I’m talking about.…rocks!

Dr Vivien Cumming has recently been in Madagascar, exploring the relationship between humans and geology.


It’s hard to describe the feeling when I see a new mountain range or cliff face, it’s somewhere in the pit of the stomach, a childlike sense of excitement. It comes from knowing that this spectacle holds a long story, a story we can piece together like a puzzle but that will never be fully complete because we don’t (yet) have a time machine that can take us back millions of years. In a way rocks are Earth’s time machine.

Going in search of this story can take you to some of Earth’s most remote and wild places. Just as early explorers went out to determine whether our planet was flat or to find creatures and plants never seen before, painting a picture of what the planet looked like at the time; we now examine rocks to find new evidence of how the planet looked millions to billions of years ago.

Remote mountain ranges in the Yukon, Canada where few humans have set foot and where you can find evidence of glaciations that one covered the entire planet.

As I write this I am sitting in a tent with the wind and rain howling outside in the middle of nowhere in Arctic Canada, miles from civilization with only the wolves and caribou as friends, and the geologists of course. My time is spent in these remote parts of the world working with other scientists and documenting their research. Telling stories about rocks is made easier by following the scientists that have this same sense of excitement when they stare at the mountains. Their passion is infectious and their insight helps to paint a picture of how our Earth once looked and how it may look in the future.

Over the next 6 months I will be exploring literally from one end of the Earth to the other — Arctic Canada to the Southern Ocean (almost) via Himalayan rivers. This journey will take me from the dawn of life on Earth to times when the planet was so hot that there was no ice at the poles, to the dynamics of our changing climate today. All of these stories including our own human story are recorded in the rocks — an encyclopedia of our planet ready to be read.

Some of the oldest rocks in the world in Scotland’s Assynt region. Growing up in Scotland inspired me to want to understand the planet’s history.

To follow my journeys and hear more about our planet’s history and how it is changing you can keep up to date on my social media channels: @drvivcumming on Instagram and Twitter, my website (, and follow my posts on National Geographic Voices. Here’s how my journey will pan out:

Hunting for early life in Arctic Canada by canoe – August 2017: How, why and when did life get bigger and diversify on this planet?

I will be canoeing from Dismal Lakes to Kugluktuk on the Artic Ocean down the Kendall and Coppermine Rivers with a group of geologists studying rocks over a billion years old. We will be hunting for new microfossil evidence of diversifying early life on Earth and how a huge volcanic eruption affected it. Following the route of early explorers over 100 years ago, we will be experiencing what it’s like to get yourself, all your food and gear for a month down river by paddle. As well as the stories told by the rocks I will be documenting the wildlife we meet, evidence left by early explorers, and meeting the Inuit that hunt in this region. You can follow this journey more closely here:

Carbon and climate captured in the flow of Burma’s rivers – September 2017: Does the world’s largest mountain range impact the Earth’s long-term climate?

We don’t know yet if the rivers originating in the world’s largest mountain range add or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Rivers are like the lifeblood of the planet carrying carbon from mountain ranges to the ocean. With a changing climate it is important to understand how carbon in rivers affects climate. I will be traveling to Burma with scientists from Cambridge University to sample water from the Irrawaddy River and its tributaries as part of a wider project aiming to understand the carbon flux from Earth’s largest rivers. You can follow our journey here:

Into the Southern Ocean to investigate the Cretaceous — a time when Earth was very hot, Australia and Antarctica were neighbors, and the dinosaurs went extinct: October to December 2017:

I will be sailing with the Joides Resolution, a research boat that drills cores from the ocean floor to investigate rocks from places we can’t get to. We will be sailing from Hobart to Fremantle in Australia over a two-month period investigating the rise and fall of a “hothouse” Earth and the acidifying oceans during this time in order to better understand our planet today, and also the events leading up to the mass extinction where dinosaurs disappeared from Earth. During the Cretaceous, Australia was next to Antarctica and there was no ice! We will be asking the question when did they separate and how did this affect climate and ocean circulation? You can follow the stories from this expedition here:

Why do I go to these lengths to document and understand rocks? A lot can be said for rocks and how they have inspired my life and goals, but there’s more to my desire to understand these processes.

Dr Vivien Cumming in awe of nature’s forces while filming in Iceland (Photo credit – Huw James).

Deep down, every geologist, mountaineer or anyone that spends time in nature knows that Earth’s natural forces will always have more power than humans. There is something about being in the wilderness at the mercy of nature that makes you feel human again. Delving deep into the answers hidden within rocks ultimately holds the answer to our very being, and accepting that we will never know the full story somehow brings self-acceptance. Exploring the world and embracing the forces of nature allows nature to tell its story for you.

“The problems that geology proposes to solve are among the most attractive and the most difficult that can engage the ingenuity of man.” — Charles Lapworth, 1910.

Geologists exploring remote regions in Baffin Island, Canada in search of early life.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Vivien Cumming
Dr Vivien Cumming is an Earth scientist, photographer, writer and filmmaker from Scotland specializing in natural world storytelling and documenting scientific expeditions. Viv did a degree in Natural Sciences followed by award-winning PhD and postdoctoral research at Durham University in the UK, Harvard University in the USA and McGill University in Canada. After 8 years as an academic studying the diversification of life on this planet and times of extreme climatic variation, Viv decided to follow her passion of documenting and communicating science to a wider audience through photography, film and storytelling. Viv's work involves following scientists or a hunch to document our changing world and to tell the story of how the Earth works. For the media, Viv covers scientific expeditions at the forefront of research and exploration. She works closely with scientists on expeditions and at universities training them in different storytelling methods as well as helping them to curate content for their websites and social media in order to get their research out there. Through 20647, Viv has been on a number of scientific expeditions which she has been sharing on the National Geographic Voices blog.