Chasing Rukwa: The Not So Final Frontier


“When I was 15 years old,my parents let me go off to Utah by myself with a team of geologists to camp in the desert for a month to study the rocks. If they hadn’t let me do that when I was quite young, maybe none of this would have happened the way it did.”

By Nick Palmisano

Perceptive and welcoming, Hannah Hilbert-Wolf is humbling to be around. A passion for earth sciences has led her into a fascinating career of travel, adventure, and new discoveries.

For Hannah, her inspiration and passion for the earth sciences also came from childhood encounters with teachers who shaped her outlook and opened her mind to the possibility of a career in geology. With the help of her science teacher’s husband, a geologist at a nearby university, Hannah performed well in her high school science fair, and travelled over 2000 kilometres from her Pennsylvanian home to Arizona for an international science competition.

“It was my first time traveling to the Western United States. I was absolutely amazed by the red rocks in Arizona, and I think the combination of having really amazing science mentors, seeing the Western United States landscape, doing well in science fair, and meeting other young scientists all of those things together made me think, ‘Alright I’m gonna keep pursuing science.’. Ever since then I’ve continued along that path.”

Hannah has since traded the rocks of North America for the rocks of a different continent. Tanzania, in Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to the Rukwa Rift Basin, one of the very few active continental rift systems in the world.


TANZANIA: Hannah Hilbert-Wolf checking out the scenery at a Tanzania Dig. CREDIT: Hannah Hilbert-Wolf

TANZANIA: Hannah Hilbert-Wolf checking out the scenery at a Tanzania Dig. CREDIT: Hannah Hilbert-Wolf


“The East African Rift is actively rifting right now. The crust is pulling apart. This happens under the ocean too, but this rift is so exciting to study because it’s happening to continental crust, and we can observe the processes right before our eyes.”

Hannah plays a role in the Rukwa Rift Basin Project that has been studying the Rukwa Rift Basin in Southern Tanzania for over 15 years. This area is still largely unexplored. With its sediments, fossils, geologic history, and bio geological data locked away in the ground. The Rukwa Rift Basin Project is the first team of researchers to explore the area and study the unique rock record there.

“The project is wide in its scope, for both paleontological and geological studies. The projects we develop and work on are significant, as they tell us about the flora and fauna, climate change, landscape evolution, and tectonic changes during important parts of Earth’s history, especially during times of major faunal evolution. It’s an active rift basin, which is really rare. The East African Rift System is the perfect archetypal rift basin, and it’s a rare glimpse into how continental rifting works on earth.”

The Rukwa Rift Basin Project team has made a number of significant geological and paleontological discoveries, dating the timing of the rifting, and finding new fauna, among them, a brand new dinosaur, Rukwatitan.

But for Hannah it’s not just about ancient bones, or making the big discoveries. She’s also interested in nature’s wild side, and what Tanzania’s geological history can tell us about future environmental change and natural hazards.

“I’m very interested in what sediments can tell us about seismicity. I explore patterns preserved in sedimentary rocks to study ancient earthquakes in an attempt to understand their magnitude and distribution, and how earthquakes can affect the ground we live on. Earthquakes can cause the ground to behave like a liquid, which can be really dangerous for buildings, and therefore for the people living in seismically active areas.”

Geology plays a central role in influencing environmental understanding, with its focus on the past giving an insight into what may happen in the future. Most earth scientists come from a geology background.

“Understanding ancient environments and how the earth changed in the past is how we can predict or understand how it’s changing now and in the future. The rock record can be an analogue for what’s going on now.

“The study of climate change and other related disciplines can benefit from geological understanding. For example, you can’t separate the influences water, the atmosphere, climate, or the Earth’s crust have on each other. All of these spheres overlap, and they’re all connected.”

Hannah feels fortunate that her geological journey has brought her to Australia.

Her experiences as a geologist are far removed from the stereotypes often levelled against scientists; nerds in white lab coats who never leave the lab.  Hannah is the epitome of the modern geologist, an adventure-seeking frontierswoman, passionately pushing boundaries in an effort to expand the parameters of our world. Geologists go where nobody has gone before, and take big leaps for mankind in the name of science.

Hannah cares about the role of geology in the community, and how important it is for science to form connections with mainstream society.

“I think it’s important to involve your community in some way with the research you’re doing, so that the support can go both ways. You have to try, and you have to put some effort into communication.”

“I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some local schools in Townsville, helping with science fair projects, and it doesn’t have anything to do with my research, but the point is just to get kids excited about science and to be an accessible scientist role model is important.

“I was lucky enough to go to Africa twice, as part of my undergraduate degree, and I fell in love with it. When I finished my degree I wanted to move overseas and study further. My mentors recommended Dr Eric Roberts. He’s a lecturer here at JCU, one of the best sedimentologists in the world, and it just so happened that he also studies African geology. I was also drawn to JCU and to Australia by the world-class lab facilities.

“I graduated on a Saturday in June, and was on the plane on Sunday. I’d never been to Australia before, but now I’ve been in Townsville just short of three years.”

Hannah’s love for Australia is evident in her voice. She knows she’s found a place where her craft is recognized, appreciated, and acknowledged. Geologists are, ultimately, explorers in the vein of Star Trek, going where no man (or woman) has gone before. It’s impossible not to be enthralled when she taps into the inner wanderer.

“I’ve gotten to see places in the world that nobody else has seen before. It’s hard to be an explorer these days, because a lot of remote, fascinating places have been reached, but we as geologists have this rare opportunity to really be frontier explorers. There’s still a lot left to find and study, which makes you just want to get out and do more.”

Hannah will be going back to Tanzania in June, before completing her PhD, after which she will continue to chase ancient earthquakes across Africa.