Inner space man

Prof. Ron Clowes probes deep to understand Mother Earth

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

Picture When Ron Clowes speaks of Canadian history, he doesn't bring up the Riel Rebellion, Confederation, the Plains of Abraham, or anything else that happened within the last few millennia.

Instead, Clowes speaks of events that took place billions of years ago deep beneath the Earth's crust. These events led to the formation of mountain ranges taller than today's Himalayas, of canyons 10 times deeper than the Grand Canyon, and of massive oceans created and destroyed.

For the past 15 years, Clowes, a geophysicist and professor in UBC's Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences, has played a key role in leading-edge research into Canada's geological history.

As director of Lithoprobe, Canada's largest and longest-lived national earth sciences research project, Clowes has worked with hundreds of researchers in the geosciences from across the country and around the globe to build a profile, and understand the development, of the portion of the lithosphere that lies beneath Canada and its surrounding continental margins.

The lithosphere is Earth's relatively cold, strong and rigid outer shell, typically 100 kilometres or more thick but as thin as 30 kilometres and as thick as 300 kilometres in places.

Within the lithosphere is a global mosaic of plates, some of which hold continents, all moving relative to one another. As these plates collide over the course of billions of years, they can, and do, transform the planet.

The most immediate and noticeable effects of the slow movement of tectonic plates are the earthquakes that result as pressure building up between plates is suddenly and violently released, a none too subtle reminder that Earth is still a work in progress.

Lithoprobe came into being in the early 1980s following discussions among many earth scientists in Canada -- geochemists, geophysicists, and geologists -- of the need for a major, co-ordinated, multidisciplinary research project. The result of those discussions was Lithoprobe which, in 15 years, has more than met those early goals.

Research into the earthquake-prone Juan de Fuca plate off Vancouver Island initially brought Clowes into the Lithoprobe fold. In 1984, he and others launched the fledgling Lithoprobe's first major study of the Cascadia subduction zone, where the oceanic Juan de Fuca plate is thrust below the North American plate.

Thanks in part to the success of this study, Clowes found himself working on the proposal for funding of Lithoprobe's Phase II.

In 1987, he was named Lithoprobe director, responsible for the science and administering funding provided to the project by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

When the project -- which recently received funding for a final phase of five years -- concludes in 2003 after 20 years, NSERC, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), partners in industry, provincial geological surveys and numerous Canadian universities, will have channeled $100 million toward the 10 major components or study areas across Canada that make up the project.

"The project has exceeded the expectations of the original proponents and certainly exceeded my expectations too," says Clowes. "No one could have envisaged that it would still be going in the year 2000, and with such strength."

Breakthroughs made during the course of the project are immense in physical size alone: a mountain range bigger than the Himalayas once towered across Ontario, Quebec and into Labrador; a massive rift, 30 kilometres deep, once existed where Lake Superior is now, before being filled in over tens of millions of years by lava and sediments; previously unknown structures as much as 20 kilometres high and 100 kilometres long lie deep beneath the surface of B.C. and central Alberta; and an ocean the size of the Pacific once lay in place of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, complete with island archipelagos similar to Indonesia and the Philippines.

In some areas, researchers met with astounding success. In the Northwest Territories they were able to generate, through seismic reflection, images of great clarity of the Earth's crust and into the lower part of the lithosphere below it.

"We have reflections at depths approaching 100 kilometres that we can follow for 300 kilometres laterally," marvels Clowes. "That's never been seen before."

Another surprise came in northern Quebec, just south of James Bay, where researchers detected evidence that plate tectonic processes were occurring some 700 to 800 million years earlier than had previously been documented.

"Previous studies had demonstrated that these tectonic processes occurred in the Paleoproterozoic, just under 1,900 million years ago, with the best example achieved in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland. The evidence collected in Quebec indicates movement 2,600 million years ago," he says.

Researchers have relied on a variety of techniques from geology, geophysics and geochemistry to build the detailed profile. Deep Earth images are generated largely with seismic reflection, in which sound energy generated by large "vibroseis trucks" -- likened to dancing elephants -- is reflected vertically and provides a fuzzy image of rock types and structures. Seismic refraction, where energy released by deep explosions is measured as it reaches the surface great distances away from the source, and electromagnetic studies, which investigate the electrical conductivity of the subsurface, are also used.

Now, with the majority of the project components either complete or nearing completion, Clowes is able to paint a clear picture of the contributions the project has made not only scientifically, but also on a social and economic level.

"The legacy of Lithoprobe includes a data set which has no equal anywhere in the world," he says, describing the detailed mapping of Canada's deep-earth structures from coast to coast.

The project's legacy also includes new or refined technologies and techniques, such as the application of seismic reflection in the mining industry.

Although Lithoprobe met with openly voiced scepticism from some Canadian mining companies when it was getting underway, applications of seismic reflection have since been recognized as valuable by the mining community, something Clowes sees as a major breakthrough and validation of Lithoprobe research.

Mining companies are now putting the proven technologies to use.

Noranda Exploration spent close to $2 million on seismic applications last year, and Inco Ltd. claims its involvement with Lithoprobe has caused it to modify its world-wide exploration program, Clowes says.

If a Canadian mining company makes even a modest discovery using data or techniques developed during the 20-year project, the resulting benefits to the Canadian economy in terms of jobs and revenue could very quickly surpass the total cost of Lithoprobe, Clowes says. And, while he doesn't directly link Lithoprobe to any current mining or petroleum discoveries, Clowes credits renewed petroleum exploration on the west coast of Newfoundland in part to advances made as a result of Lithoprobe research in that area.

The mining industry and the Geological Survey of Canada, a major participant in Lithoprobe, have picked up where Clowes and colleagues left off with earthquake research on Vancouver Island. That research continues to expand our understanding of the risks posed by a major earthquake off the B.C. coast.

Other countries are also paying attention to the Lithoprobe example. The Europeans have formed EUROPROBE which, modelled on Canada's example, is aimed at collecting data for the continent.

While the Lithoprobe years have been demanding they have also been rewarding, says Clowes.

"I'd be the first to admit that I've got one of those jobs that's just been a joy to work in," he says. "Because of Lithoprobe, I've had a lot more exposure to people and research in the earth sciences than I would have otherwise."

Clowes, who joined UBC in 1970 after completing a PhD at the University of Alberta and post-doctoral work in Australia, found himself travelling full circle with Lithoprobe when he wound up doing seismic reflection research in southern Alberta, effectively continuing on the work he did as a doctoral student in the 1960s.

Clowes has also gained recognition from his peers, notably the J. Tuzo Wilson Medal he recently received from the Canadian Geophysical Union for outstanding contributions to geophysics. The medal has particular significance for Clowes, because he knew Wilson, a pioneer in the concept of plate tectonics, and knows the previous award recipients.

More important than the personal recognition he has gained though, Clowes says, is the growing awareness of geological sciences in Canada. He hopes this new awareness and interest will make it easier for future researchers to receive the financial support they need.

"As a society we spend billions of dollars putting up space stations and sending out probes into the planetary system because we're curious about what's up there. The night sky has been a source of wonderment to mankind from day one," Clowes says.

"And yet, for some reason, there's not the same interest in good old Mother Earth, despite the fact the Earth provides our sustenance, resources and the hazards with which we must contend.

"It seems to me that, if we're going to put billions into exploring outer space, we should be willing to put a significant amount of research funding into understanding inner space as well. The problem is that inner space is hard to comprehend, you can't just look into it the way you can the night sky. In my mind, that's reason enough to justify Lithoprobe and similar projects around the world."