GeoCanada 2000 - Canadian geoscientists face the new millennium

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By: Christine Kulyk

As a science journalist, I attended GeoCanada 2000, a landmark conference held in Calgary last summer that brought together nearly 5,000 Canadian geologists and other earth scientists to discuss common concerns and plan new research directions. Subtitled The Millennium Geoscience Summit, it was the largest gathering of Earth science professionals that's ever been held in Canada.

A huge, sprawling event, with a jampacked, multistream program that ran from May 29 to June 2 at the University of Calgary, the conference was co - hosted by six groups: the Canadian Geophysical Union, Geological Association of Canada, Mineralogical Association of Canada, Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, and Canadian Well Logging Society. According to geochemist and conference coordinator Jon Dudley, the decision to hold such a joint conference for the first time grew out of a recognition that "the old ways of doing science - of always isolating the various components and studying them separately - don't work anymore. To study global climate change, for example, requires an interdisciplinary approach."

Several of the keynote speakers expressed a growing sense among Canadian geoscientists that for the profession to remain healthy in the new millennium, they will need to develop a common voice that would give them more clout in government policy - making and the allocation of tight budgets.

As noted in the program book's welcoming statement by conference chair Ian McIlreath, GeoCanada 2000 aimed to provide Canadian earth scientists with a forum "to discuss issues affecting all of our disciplines, including our relationship with the public."

In the words of the opening keynote speaker, planetary scientist and geoscience educator Susan Kieffer, "Earth science is capable of looking at the world through both a zoom - in and a zoom - out mode - a 'bifocal' view. . . . The travels of geologists tend to make them deeply and personally aware of [things like] the mushrooming population on our planet."

To face the challenges of the new millennium, noted Kieffer, we must become more aware of how patterns of global change and periodic natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions affect our lives, and how we can learn to be prepared for them. To that end, Kieffer exhorted her colleagues, "We must become involved and passionate citizen - scientists."

GeoCanada was twice the size of the biggest previous Canadian Earth science conference, with a program that included nearly 800 talks and almost 400 poster - style presentations. GeoCanada also hosted a huge Trade Show with over 150 exhibitors filling the floor of Calgary's Olympic Skating Oval. A GeoTreasures exhibit showcased specimens from Canadian museum collections, including gems, fossils, and meteorites, as well as a complete mammoth skeleton. Housed in a small museum on the university campus, the GeoTreasures exhibit was open to the general public.

The wide - ranging program of technical talks at GeoCanada ran the gamut from detailing the fine points of geochemical analysis to new techniques of aerial and satellite mapping. Not surprisingly, in view of the Alberta venue, a major component was devoted to mining and oil exploration.

In one session, University of Calgary geology student Mike Mazur described research on six buried impact craters recently discovered in Alberta. The largest of these, the 25 - kilometre - wide Steen River structure in northwestern Alberta, dating to 95 million years ago, has been found to contain significant deposits of natural gas and oil.

"Twenty - five percent of all craters," noted Mazur, "have some hydrocarbon or mineral - resource potential. There are possibly hundreds of impact craters larger than 1 kilometre in diameter awaiting recognition in Alberta. As in other parts of the world, many of these will likely have great economic potential."

The topic of climate change was also a major focus at the conference. As Chris Barnes, director of the University of Victoria's Department of Earth and Ocean Research, noted in his keynote address, "Seven of the last 10 warmest years in the past 1,000 happened in the 1990s."

Researchers presented evidence from the palaeontological record of past climate cycles and patterns that could prove relevant for predicting the future. Others described computer models of global scenarios generating drastic climate fluctuations.

Among the most intriguing - and certainly the most drastic - of these is the "snowball Earth" theory. As explained by Canadian geologist Paul Hoffman, now at Harvard University, Earth was once covered by glacial ice from pole to pole. From about 800 to 600 million years ago, huge fluctuations in CO2 levels put Earth through a "freeze - fry cycle," with repeated episodes when the oceans were covered by a kilometre of ice and average temperature in the tropics was -50 degrees Celsius followed by periods of extreme global warming. When the snowball Earth phase ended, said Hoffman, our planet was left with a vastly changed atmosphere and climate - setting the stage for the explosion of new, multicellular life forms in the Cambrian period.

A significant innovation for the conference was that an entire stream of program items was open to the general public and geared to their interests. Topics covered in the public program included house dust, asbestos, water quality, natural hazards such as earthquakes and floods, and global warming.

There was also a special program for teachers, titled "Communicating Critical Geoscience Issues to Canadian Communities," and high - school students were invited for a day of special events.

Many of the talks and posters at GeoCanada were devoted to innovative Earth science education projects. Lisa Holmstrom, education coordinator for The Yoho - Burgess Shale Foundation, described a teacher - training course called "Making Connections: Science in the Mountains." The course focuses on presenting Earth science topics in ways that are entertaining and relevant to everyday life.

"An understanding of Earth science is necessary to intelligent debate on [things like] natural resources and natural hazards, which impact us all," said Holmstrom. The course takes high - school teachers to the Burgess shale site near Field, B.C., and participating geoscientists help them discover techniques and resources they can use with their own students.

According to Chris Barnes, director of the University of Victoria's Department of Earth and Ocean Research, recent figures on university enrolments demonstrate that currently, "not enough university students are being attracted to geology." And keynote speaker Sue Kieffer noted, "There's a desperate need for Earth science teachers. We need to be involved with teachers and students in the classroom. High - tech research needs to be supported by our explaining it to the public. That way, we will get our science recognized for the elegance that it has."

Former Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar gave a public talk at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, where she described what it's like to soar around the Earth 129 times in eight days. Among the insights she brought back from that experience, said Bondar, was seeing for herself that the true geographic centre of Canada lies in Nunavut, north of Baker Lake. "We have things in Canada that are [found] nowhere else on Earth," said Bondar. "If you love the Earth, you will want to protect it."

The title of Bondar's talk, "Sphere of Influence," reflected one of the overriding themes of GeoCanada - the need for taking a global view. As Chris Barnes noted in his keynote address, "It's absolutely essential that Earth scientists speak to the globe and global problems," rather than continuing to be "local and tribalistic."

With devices enabling us to see the Earth from space, humans have begun to take a more global perspective. Because of this, said Barnes, we are now beginning to develop "earth system science" - studying interactions between geology, atmosphere, and water, and how interconnected processes lead to climate change.

As Barnes noted, in the latter part of the 20th century, human beings "became aware of the finite nature of planet Earth, as a result of ventures into space and looking back [at Earth from space]." As we enter the new century with devices capable of giving us the big picture as never before, it may be possible to begin taking a truly global view.

"Our real responsibility," Barnes told those gathered at the conference, "is to look at what the globe faces over the next two decades and who is going to be affected, and to provide real solutions to the major problems facing our planet in the near future." For the thousands of Canadian Earth scientists who attended GeoCanada 2000, such motivations will likely prove to be crucial to the formulation of new game plans to take the field into the 21st century.

Chris Barnes
Left: Chris Barnes of the University of Victoria delivers a keynote speech. Photo: Jon Dudley

Christine Kulyk, a freelance journalist based in Kingston, Ontario, is Assistant Editor of SkyNews magazine and has written for Equinox and Canadian Geographic.