Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Alumni Awards

Ron Clowes Helped Uncover a Four-Billion-Year-Old Story

This Earth scientist is one of four 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients

By Therese Kehler

Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
November 23, 2020 •

Now more than ever, it’s clear. We all have a part to play to keep each other safe, to lift each other up. This year’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients show us how it’s done. These four extraordinary grads — Karen Barnes, Ron M. Clowes, Howard Leeson and Stanley Read — have brought together ideas and people to make the world a more just, humane and intelligible place.

“Lithoprobe” sounds like something you’d find in a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel, not on a resumé. But then you might not be familiar with the work of Ron M. Clowes, ’64 BSc(Hons), ’66 MSc, ’69 PhD.

Lithoprobe was a Canadian Earth sciences megaproject that ran from 1984 to 2005. More than 1,000 scientists worked together to dig up secrets from the Earth’s crust and outer mantle (a.k.a. the lithosphere) to better tell the story of how the land mass of northern North America took shape. As its director, Clowes says the aim of the project was simple: “To go backward in time and figure out what was happening to the Earth four billion years ago up until the present.”

The project’s bragging rights include the discovery of a 2.5-billion-year-old chunk of crust in central Saskatchewan and a new theory of how the Canadian Shield was formed. Many of the findings are now used to help locate resources and help predict and mitigate hazards like earthquakes. Here are some other legacies that still reverberate today.

Unexpected teammates

Before Lithoprobe, geophysicists and geologists “didn’t really talk to each other,” says Clowes. Both study the Earth but in different ways. Geologists interpret what they see on the surface by studying the rock itself, while geophysicists use sound waves, magnetism and gravity to peek into the depths that make up the lithosphere. Lithoprobe thrived on the power of collaboration, says Clowes. “We realized that the sum of the individual parts was greater than those individual parts.”

Mapping Canada’s underground

North of Yellowknife are four-billion-year‑old rocks, the oldest on the planet. Rocks near the Juan de Fuca Plate off the coast of the Pacific Northwest are some of Earth’s youngest. Over 22 years, researchers used methods like seismic reflection to analyze 10 study areas, from Juan de Fuca in the west to the continental shelf east of Newfoundland and Labrador. In each, a team of researchers explored its structure and how it evolved. The results were stitched together to create a unique cross-section of the continent. Says Clowes: “We have a map of the underground 6,000 kilometres long and 100 kilometres deep.”

Still used today

With more than 1,500 scientific papers to its name, Lithoprobe has a long list of discoveries that have made an impact today, such as new exploration techniques for mineral resources. Lithoprobe was a model for the Centres of Excellence program, a countrywide effort to bring together researchers from the academic, private and public sectors. The project’s geophysical database is archived at the Geological Survey of Canada and is still used by industry. And the hundreds of post-doctoral fellows, post-grad and undergrad students who worked on the project have gone on to make an impact in government, industry and education, says Clowes. “If you were able to talk to many of them, they would tell you that the time they spent in Lithoprobe was one of the best times they ever had.”


6 things you should know about Ron Clowes

“Through Ron’s efforts, vision and leadership, we now understand so much. … The team he led elucidated four billion years of the continent’s history as well as shining a light on the deep structure of Canada from coast to coast to coast.” – Paul Smith, UBC professor emeritus

Adventures from ‘down under’

In a book called Dancing Elephants and Floating Continents, Clowes helped the author turn Lithoprobe into an adventure story for children. He is also co-author on the adult book *Ghost Mountains and Vanished Oceans*.

Humble opinion

The first of Clowes’s 21 awards was for a paper in 1966; his most recent was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. In between, he has been awarded the prestigious Royal Society of Canada fellowship and the Order of Canada. “What were we doing here amongst all these people who have accomplished so much?” he said on attending the Order of Canada gala.

State of the art

On his graduate studies: “Of course, we did some fancy data processing. I was using punch cards for the computer.”

Hints of greatness

As a grad student in 1968, his paper about a U of A team’s groundbreaking work in seismic reflection was published by Geophysics and named the esteemed journal’s best paper of the year. “I thought everything would be downhill from there on in,” he later said.

We had to know

Clowes pauses for a beat after being asked whether he’d read all 1,500 Lithoprobe papers. “Actually,” he says, “I have not.”

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