Earth and Environmental Sciences celebrates 50 pioneering years

Monday, September 28, 2015

Earth and Environmental Sciences celebrates 50 pioneering years.Over its fifty-year history, Earth Science faculty have earned an international reputation as pioneers in contaminant hydrogeology and leaders in outreach through their award-winning Earth Sciences Museum.

Earth Sciences has achieved a superb reputation that extends far beyond Waterloo Region,” says William Taylor, Department Chair and Distinguished Professor Emeritus. “It’s an incredible story that continues today.”

Robert Farvolden: Bringing a vision to life

The Department of Earth Sciences was established on July 1, 1965, with a skeleton crew of five faculty and staff: Paul Karrow (Quaternary Geology) as Chair, Ted Appleyard (Petrology) and Christopher Barnes (Paleontology) as faculty members, Barbara Beaulieu as secretary, and Brian Robinson as part-time technician.  The first students in the new three-year General Earth Sciences program began classes in September 1965.

The department remained small until the founders decided to specialise in environmental geology and hired Robert Farvolden as Department Chair in 1970. As part of this mandate, Farvolden immediately established the Earth Sciences graduate program and hired three new research faculty within the emerging field of groundwater hydrology: John Cherry (Groundwater), Peter Fritz (Geochemistry) and Emil Frind (Quantitative Methods).

By 1974, the department grew to more than 15 faculty specializing in sedimentology, mineralogy, engineering geology, petrology, geochemistry, geophysics, and groundwater hydrology.

Today, much to the credit of the department’s diverse faculty, the department offers a broad array of Earth sciences courses, covering topics from classic geology to ecology and water management. The Science 2+2 Undergraduate Collaborative Education Program with China, headed by geologist Shoufa Lin, has brought in more than 200 students from some the best universities across China.

Waterloo’s reputation in Earth Sciences is rapidly growing in China,” says Professor Lin, Associate Dean of International Programs for the Faculty of Science. “Their education here prepares them for further opportunities worldwide.”

To reflect the changing curriculum and student population, the department changed its name to Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2008.

A field experiment like no other: Base Borden, Ontario

Groundwater contamination was not recognized as a serious problem until the 1970s. One of the most challenging contaminants to clean up was dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs), which include chlorinated solvents used in dry cleaning facilities.

An experimental site at the Canadian Forces Base in Borden, Ontario was established by University of Waterloo hydrogeologists as the only site in the world where researchers could legally release DNAPLs into the groundwater as part of a series of controlled, full-scale field experiments.

These experiments allowed Waterloo researchers and their collaborators to create the first detailed vertical cross sections of the subsurface using multi-depth wells, and to develop new remediation technologies like the permeable reactive barrier, used worldwide today.

Policy concepts like establishing groundwater wellhead protection areas (WHPA) were also refined and quantified using groundwater transport models developed at the University of Waterloo.

Professor Robert GillhamBy the mid-1990s, the members of the Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research had 72 patents and were second only to the United States Geological Survey in terms of number of academic citations. Four of the ten University of Waterloo faculty ever named as Thomson-Reuters Most Highly Cited Researchers are from Earth and Environmental Sciences. Professor Robert Gillham was also named a Member of the Order of Canada for his outstanding contributions to groundwater research.

Groundwater by Alan Freeze and John CherryWaterloo’s other great contribution to groundwater hydrology was the textbook Groundwater by R. Allan Freeze (University of British Columbia) and John Cherry. First published in 1979, it remains one of the most widely referenced textbooks by hydrologists across Canada and the US.

Earth Sciences Museum

Earth Sciences Museum fossils in the main display hall.Conceived as a Canada centennial project, the University of Waterloo Earth Sciences Museum was opened in 1968 as the Biology−Earth Sciences Museum. The museum changed its name and mission to focus on Earth sciences in 1994.

Initially housed in the university’s Biology One building, the museum moved to its current home in the Centre for Environmental and Information Technology in 2003. Then curator Peter Russell and Cheryl Atkinson of Teeple Architects designed the Exhibit Atrium, which incorporated the museum exhibits into nearly every corner of the new structure, including the CEIT Café.

Peter Russell Rock GardenThe Geological Garden of the Earth Sciences was opened in 1987 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the University of Waterloo. It was renamed the Peter Russell Rock Garden in 1999 in honour of Russell as an Honorary Member of the University. The garden has grown to over 70 specimens from all over Canada and the United States.

Today, the Earth Sciences Museum welcomes nearly 80,000 visitors annually, mainly school children, through its extended outreach program with local schools. Earth Science Museum volunteers also engage with the community at events like the Waterloo Wellington Children’s Groundwater Festival, Science Open House, Discovery Days in downtown Kitchener, and Earth Day at Laurel Creek.

Mastadon image being hung by plant operations in the Earth Sciences MuseumThe museum continues to welcome new displays like Mastodon: Life, Death and Discovery, an augmented reality experience added last year in honour of the Department’s 50th anniversary. The Earth Sciences Museum is currently developing the next generation of three-dimensional, augmented reality exhibits through a five-year grant from Equitable Life of Canada.

A diamond-studded future

Philippe Van Cappellen

Today, the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences remains a powerhouse of research and discovery.

In 2011, Earth and Environmental Sciences was awarded one of Waterloo’s two Canada Excellence Research Chairs, an opportunity that was used to attract the outstanding biogeochemist Philippe Van Cappellen.

Earth Sciences are at the centre of today’s great debates about climate change and human impacts on the environment and our planet’s finite resources,” says Professor Van Cappellen. “In today’s world, appropriately termed the Anthropocene, we, as humans, have become the dominant geological force. These are exciting times for Earth scientists to use their knowledge of the past to plan for a better future."

Earth faculty actively participate in UW’s Water Institute as well as multi-sector partnerships hosted at University of Waterloo like the Southern Ontario Water Consortium and the Canadian Water Network. Nationally-funded initiatives like TERRE-CREATE training in sustainable mining are establishing new fields and attracting students from across the country.

David BlowesThis year, Professor David Blowes and colleagues from Carleton Univerisity and the Universities of Alberta and British Columbia were awarded an NSERC Synergy Innovation Award for their collaboration with Diavik Diamond Mines.

This was Prof. Blowes’ second NSERC Synergy award. He first won the award with Earth and Environmental Science professors Emil Frind and Carol Ptacek in 1999 for their partnership with Falconbridge Ltd.

Recent media coverage has also included stories in the Globe and Mail, CBC’s The Current, Science Daily, the Waterloo Record, and CTV news featuring research from professors Sherry Schiff, John Spoelstra, Hans Dürr, Maurice Dusseault, and Steve Evans. More research news can be found on the Earth and Environmental Sciences news page.

Please join the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in marking its 50th Anniversary this fall by attending the commemorative Farvolden Lecture featuring Professor David Rudolph and celebratory dinner on Friday, October 30, 2015.