NOVA - Making North America, Part 1: Origins - A Review

An Introduction to Really, Really, Really Old Parts of North America

Host Kirk Johnson at the Grand Canyon, in NOVA's Making North America
Host Kirk Johnson at the Grand Canyon, in NOVA's Making North America. WGBH

NOVA: Making North America - Origins. 2015. Hosted by Kirk Johnson, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Sant director; series producer and director, Peter Oxley; exec producer for Nova Julia Cort; Executive producers for Windfall films David Dugan, Rob Hartel and Carlo Massarella; managing directory Alan Ritsko, Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell. Nova production by Windfall Films for WGBH Boston, 2015.

Featuring Cameron McLean Exploration Manager at North American Palladium Ltd; geophysicist Emily Wolin, Northwestern University, AB Olevic supervisor, New York City; sedimentologist David Loope, University of Wyoming, drone expert John Fredericks, paleontologist Lisa White, University of California Museum of Paleontology

On Wednesday, November 4, The PBS NOVA program begins a three-part series called Making North America, and if the initial episode "Origins" is any indication, it will be irresistible television. Making North America covers the entire known prehistory of the North American content: and "Origins" describes the geological forces that occurred during the first 4 billion years of the land mass that North Americans live on today.

Sailing over the Continent

Hosted by Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, "Origins" takes us to places in North America where evidence of the three great paleo-continents survive: Rodinia, Laurentia, and Pangea, the massive super-continent of all the great continents which formed about 300 million years ago.

In this program, Johnson takes us to several locations in the United States and Canada, starting with the Grand Canyon, where chunks of the CGI stratigraphy slide out like drawers in a map cabinet. Did you know the bottom level of the Grand Canyon dates to 1.7 billion years ago? We next get to helicopter over erupting Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, where Johnson experiences for us the spattering vermilion lava flow and the stinking sulfurous fumes.

Next its off to Lac des Iles Mine, near Thunderbay, Ontario, where a huge blue palladium mine gives us an eyeball at rock dated to 3 billion years ago. On the beach of Lake Superior, Johnson finds for us Lake Superior agates, the result of gas bubbles from an ancient volcanic eruption that also contributed to the fabulous water fall at Gooseberry Falls, Minnesota.

The U.S. Array

Geophysicist Emily Wolin demonstrates the U.S. Array, a network of seismic sensors that tracks the echoes of a huge--really, I don't think we have a big enough word for this--a huge, huge basalt rift in the crust of North America, arcing through the midwest and Great Lakes region, evidence for the break up of Rodinia.

In New York City, Johnson shows us the bedrock outcrops of Manhattan schist, which provides the foundation for the enormous buildings to be erected; and, just to keep us humble, reminds us that at one time, there were mountains on Manhattan.

Deserts and Palm Fronds

Sedimentologist David Loope gives a tour of the vast sandstone deposits in Utah's Zion Canyon National Park, and shows us the effects of ancient geysers, a string of perfect circles in the desert; a trip to the Colorado Rockies for evidence of two earlier mountain chains in the same general location is assisted by photography from a drone.

Up to the west coast of Alaska and British Columbia, where a group of fossil hunters help Johnson find the fossil of a palm frond; and finally Lisa White of the UC Museum of Paleontology takes us to Tomales Bay, where the San Andreas fault slides the continental plates bringing Los Angeles two to three inches closer to San Francisco every year.

Bottom Line

I'm still struggling with finding words that adequately reflect the geological forces that are described in this program. Big. Old. Slow. As an archaeologist used to thinking of 4 million years ago as being "deep time", I must admit the billions of years of time covered by the program is breath-taking. And, so are the location photography and CGI effects, astonishing and beautiful.

Two more parts of the NOVA series they tell us will be "Life" and "Human".

I can hardly wait.

NOVA's Making North America: Origins premieres on PBS on Wednesday, November 4, 2015, and no doubt will be available on line for a while after that.