John Ketchum, Director of the NWT Geological Survey

Unlocking our Potential: The Last Word - John Ketchum on Geoscience

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Blog Entries

November 29, 2019

Government geological surveys, like the GNWT’s Northwest Territories Geological Survey are found worldwide. If you’ve ever wondered why that is - or what these organizations do, you are not necessarily alone.

It’s reasonable to think that there are tried-and-true answers to these questions, and indeed there are. But recent changes to climate, environment, economic activity and other factors have led to the realization that tried-and-true no longer cuts it.

Geological surveys of old mainly conducted regional-scale studies, non-renewable resource evaluations, and generally created geoscience knowledge that others could use for benefit, most often to generate economic wealth. The work of a geological survey was, and still is, regarded as a public good - similar to the good that building a highway brings to society in general and highway users in particular.

While the importance of these traditional activities has not diminished, they are increasingly being joined by new geoscience needs that reflect recent change. As many will know, in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, some of these changes are occurring at rates that residents and scientists alike have not observed before.

From a geological perspective, the current showpiece of Arctic change is permafrost thaw. Some landscapes and coastlines that are underlain by ice-rich permafrost are changing over timescales measured in months, and terms such as “thaw slump” and “geohazard risk” are creeping into everyday usage.

Although all landscapes evolve over time, the situation in the Arctic has taken on a new sense of urgency as the integrity of roads, buildings and other man-made structures are threatened by permafrost change. It is already occurring, and there is more to come.

Enter the geological surveys of new. Their clients now include people from many walks of life, and the list of topics in need of study has grown substantially. Recently, the leaders of Canadian provincial and territorial geological surveys compiled a list of all the things that they do. Sixty core activities requiring specialized skills or knowledge were collectively identified, which is both an astonishing number and a modern-day reality. Artificial intelligence, 3-D geological mapping, drone surveys, geothermal energy, rare earth element studies, coastal erosion and UNESCO Global Geoparks are just some of the newcomers.

As governments tackle ever-more complex issues, geological surveys have evolved to become an active part of the narrative. They work to understand an issue and its implications, advise on possible solutions and help to inform the decision-making processes of governments and others. Although this evolution has not been without its challenges, geological surveys have generally become more engaged in generating knowledge that is solution-oriented and impacts a wider cross-section of society. For a scientific discipline that is not easily understood by the public, that is not a bad evolutionary path to follow.