Remembering Dr. Paul Karrow, our first Department Chair

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences is mourning the passing of Dr. Paul Karrow. He was a founding member and the first Chair of the Department. Karrow passed away on February 5, 2023 at the age of 93.

Headshot of Dr. Paul Karrow
Karrow, a sedimentary geologist, was one of the “Grandfathers” of Quaternary Geology. He was widely known for his contribution to the field of geological sciences and was most recognized for mapping the great lakes area.

Born in St. Thomas, Ontario as the only child of an RCMP family, Karrow moved frequently. He earned a BSc from Queens University (1954) and a PhD in Geology from the University of Illinois (1957).

He worked for the Ontario Department of Mines before joining the University of Waterloo in 1963. He was hired as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering to teach geology. Two years later, in 1965, the Department of Earth Sciences was founded and Karrow became the first Department Chair. 

“Paul Karrow was there at the very beginning of our department in 1965, as its first chair," said Mario Coniglio, Department Chair. "In the decades that followed, he continued to be an enormous influence on our department’s research and teaching directions. His fingerprints are all over our enduring success.”

Karrow's research focused on the Earth's Quaternary history - the most recent 2.6 million years of Earth's geologic history. He was a prolific writer and published more than 200 articles. He is the leading authority on Quaternary stratigraphy and history - in the Great Lakes region, Toronto’s Interglacial and glacial deposits, and glacial Lake Algonquin, just to name a few.

He blazed a new trail for the “hard-rock-focused” Ontario Department of Mines to map the overburden (or sediment layers on top of southern Ontario’s bedrock), driving every road and stopping every kilometre or so to dig, examine and test the sediment - creating detailed surficial geology maps.

Throughout his work, Karrow blended and connected academia and industry. He created the Pleistocene Discussion Group and mapped numerous areas in southern Ontario that still provides the foundational knowledge needed to understand groundwater, resources like aggregate, and for building and planning.

He left the Ontario Department of Mines and joined the University of Waterloo because he wanted to teach. He taught Earth 440 – Quaternary Geology for decades, training countless students. Dr. Martin Ross took over teaching the course and reflects on the impact Karrow had.

"He was so kind to invite me along to take part on these field trips as I would be starting to teach that course the following year. It was a great opportunity for me to learn from the ‘Master”," said Ross. "While the field trips and scientific knowledge have evolved over the last 15 years, I still integrate several things I learned from him and pass that knowledge onto the new generation of Earth Sciences students. I am so glad we were able to overlap and interact a little bit."

Karrow also co-authored the textbook "Handbook of Geology in Civil Engineering" with Robert F. Leggett in 1983. The collection of images, documents and papers was kept and donated by Karrow to the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Library Archives in 2010. The collection can be viewed at the UOIT Library Archives, by appointment. 

He received many recognitions and distinctions throughout his career. In 1995, he received the W. A. Johnston Award, the highest honour from The Canadian Quaternary Association for his outstanding achievements. In 1999, Karrow and Owen White received the E.B. Burwell, Jr., Award of the Geological Society of America for their paper on Urban Geology of Canadian Cities. Karrow was awarded a 2016 Grand River Conservation Authority Watershed Award by the Grand River Conservation Authority. Karrow was honoured for mapping the surface geology of much of Grand River Watershed. He also helped create a 3D geology map of the Waterloo moraine. These maps have been critical for our understanding and quantitative modeling of water flow and infiltration through the Grand River watershed.

He worked at the University of Waterloo for more than 30 years and retired in 1999. Karrow was awarded a Distinguished Professor Emeritus shortly after for his distinguished record of service in teaching and research. He continued to come to campus and publish many papers for years afterwards.

He was passionate about earth sciences and wanted to share it with the community. Karrow had started an endowment fund through the Earth Sciences Museum to encourage speakers to come from around the globe and share knowledge through a lecture series about Quaternary geology. The Paul Karrow Lecture Series focused on topics related to soft rock geology. Speakers gave one lecture to an academic audience and another in the form of a public lecture.

The Earth Sciences Museum curator, Corina McDonald, collaborated with Karrow and Dr. Barry Warner on what the environment should look like for the mastodon mural that hangs in the Centre for Environmental & Information Technology.

"Dr. Paul Karrow was passionate about Quaternary geology, and very detail oriented with respect to communicating the field of study with others," said McDonald. "Mammoths, Mastodons and the environments they lived in were of particular interest to Paul. While creating the Mastodon exhibit, which now exists in the Earth Sciences Museum, Paul was happy to provide consultation on the landscape that would have been Southern Ontario just after the last ice-age about 10,000 years ago."

He participated in various outreach initiatives including being an active contributor to the Department's Wat on Earth newsletter and co-authored a few books. He helped write the book, A Mastodon in a Biscuit Box, which explores the story of the famous travelling Highgate Mastodon which lived 13,000 years ago and was discovered in Southern Ontario in the 1800's. He also contributed to the book Manitoulin Rocks – Rocks, Fossils and Landscape of Manitoulin Island, along with Dr. Mario Coniglio and Earth Sciences Museum Curator Emeritus Peter Russell. The book was a step-by-step resource to explore and understand notable landforms and fossils on Manitoulin Island.

He volunteered his time and expertise with the K-W Historical Society and served a term as their president. Karrow was also an active member of the K-W Field Naturalists for many years. In his spare time, he was an avid model railroad hobbyist and could be found writing notes and photographing the designs of train cars along the Ontario train tracks. He was a gentle and quiet person who valued cycling and walking. He faithfully walked or cycled to and from work every day, regardless of the weather well into his late eighties.

He is survived by his four children and eight grandchildren. A tree will be planted in memory of Dr. Karrow on the University of Waterloo campus. Please post a message or share a memory on the Dr. Paul Karrow tribute wall.

Below is a video by the Grand River Conservation Authority celebrating Karrow's 2016 Watershed Award.

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