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Lawrence Morley, geologist / geophysicist, stands in front of Barrington Crater in Arizona.
Lawrence Morley, geologist / geophysicist, stands in front of Barrington Crater in Arizona.


Pioneering geophysicist Lawrence Morley broke new ground Add to ...

Sometime in 1963, Lawrence Morley proposed an outlandish theory: That rocks on the ocean floor were imprinted with a record of the direction and intensity of the Earth's magnetic field. Because the planet's magnetic polarity reversed direction every half-million years or so, he believed that iron-rich rocks and ridges on the sea floor “remembered” field reversals by locking into place their magnetic properties at the time of formation. As on the Earth’s surface, rocks miles beneath the ocean told a story, he believed.

Dr. Morley based this highly speculative theory on ocean surveys that had shown alternating bands of normal and reverse magnetism in the ocean’s crust. The patterns were so distinct that undersea maps, in black and white to represent the two magnetic orientations, resembled zebra stripes. It was all very puzzling.

“I believe,” he wrote, despite the mystery, “that there still is a wealth of unexpected information magnetically frozen in the rocks of the ocean basin floors.”

He completed a paper on his conclusions, building on earlier theories on continental drift and the spreading out of the seafloor. It was rejected. The journal's referee, in a snub now well-known in the scientific community, tartly noted that the idea may be interesting for “talk at cocktail parties, but it is not the sort of thing that ought to be published under serious scientific aegis.”

Bill Bryson's 2003 book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, related how one geologist later described Dr. Morley’s report as “probably the most significant paper in the earth sciences ever to be denied publication.”

A few months later, two Cambridge University geophysicists, Drummond Matthews and Fred Vine, independently proposed the same theory, and their paper was published in the influential journal Nature. (“It was a dreadful paper,” Prof. Vine later conceded, “really just a letter to Nature.”')

In any event, the report was hailed as a breakthrough and it gained immediate traction. Now vindicated, Dr. Morley and his contributions were duly acknowledged, and virtually overnight, the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis (also known as the Morley-Vine-Matthews hypothesis) was accepted as the first scientific confirmation of the seafloor spreading theory of continental drift.

“He was never bitter about his paper being rejected, while the second one was accepted,” said Robin Riddihough, former chief scientist of the Geological Survey of Canada. “He was just happy they were both right.”

Dr. Morley’s work also provided the underpinnings for today’s accepted theory of plate tectonics – that Earth’s crust is a collection of rigid plates moving in relation to each other, accounting for much of the planet’s surface behaviour.

Dr. Morley, who died near Owen Sound, Ont. on April 22 (fittingly, Earth Day) at 93, was a globally acclaimed geophysicist who laid much of the groundwork for geological advances in Canada. He was especially renowned as a leader in the field of remote sensing, “the science (and to some extent, art) of acquiring information about the Earth's surface without actually being in contact with it,” explains a government website. “This is done by sensing and recording reflected or emitted energy and processing, analyzing, and applying that information.”

Dr. Morley pioneered the use of advanced sensors on aircraft and satellites to monitor everything from flooding, crops and forestry issues, to mining, oil exploration and resource development, to environmental concerns. In the early 1970s, he founded and was the first president of the Canadian Remote Sensing Society, a professional association, and was the inaugural director-general of the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, now an arm of Natural Resources Canada.

Douglas Bancroft, the current director-general of the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, recalled “a legend in remote sensing. He was a combination [of] leadership, management, vision and passion that was rolled up into a single individual. He created a centre of expertise that in turn has generated ideas, innovation and most importantly, people. It's the people who are his strongest legacy.”

Until satellite imaging came along, surveyors and scientists relied on aerial photographs, Mr. Bancroft explained. But Canada is simply too big to be photographed conventionally, and the Arctic forbidding. As chief of the geophysics division of the Geological Survey of Canada for 17 years, Dr. Morley developed remote sensing techniques and completed aeromagnetic surveys that resulted in the creation of some 7,000 maps shot from high above the Earth, detailing virtually the whole country. These were used by the private sector to discover billions of dollars in minerals and spurred offshore oil exploration. (Nowadays, remote sensing has been mainstreamed by such tools as Google Earth.)

He is also credited with pushing the federal government to invest in what later became the advanced Radarsat-2 series of satellites, although he lamented the later sale of home-grown space technology as a blow against Canadian sovereignty.

“The depth and reach of Larry's influence was immense,” said Derek Peddle, a geography professor at the University of Lethbridge and immediate past-president of the Canadian Remote Sensing Society. “He was dedicated to the peaceful and productive use of remote sensing for the public good. It's an important legacy that we carry forward now.”

Lawrence Whitaker Morley was born in Toronto in 1920. His father, George, was a judge and his mother, Olive Boyd, hailed from a lumber family. Young Lawrence was exposed to remote sensing at an early age as a radar officer for the Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War.

The war had interrupted his studies, and he graduated in physics and geology from the University of Toronto in 1946. He went to work for Gulf Oil’s research and development department, pioneering the use of an airborne magnetometer for mineral and oil exploration.

The work took him to Venezuela, Colombia and across Canada. In the late 1940s, he returned to the University of Toronto for his masters and PhD degrees in geophysics. He was just 32 when he became the first geophysicist appointed to the Geological Survey of Canada.

His last two years in the public service were spent with the Canadian High Commission in London as a science counsellor. The job proved boring and frustrating.

“He enjoyed getting out and meeting with the British companies, scientists and other creative individuals,” recalled his wife, Beverly. “But he was somewhat discouraged from doing what he thought his job was. He was disappointed not to have a lot of support in his desire to move in new and progressive directions. His colleagues were stellar individuals, but he felt his hands were tied when it came to a different approach to the job. We enjoyed the social part of the High Commission posting, but the job itself was not very rewarding or satisfying.”

Dejected, he returned two years into a four-year posting and started Teledetection International, a Toronto-based remote sensing and geophysical exploration consultancy.

In 1986, Dr. Morley became founding executive director of the Institute for Space and Terrestrial Science at York University, one of seven “Centres of Excellence” established by the Ontario government to fund research. It was later folded into the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology.

The author of 65 scientific and technical papers on mineral exploration and remote sensing, he received the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Gold Medal in 1995, and in 1999, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

His marriage to scholar Patricia Morley (neé Marlow) ended in divorce, and he was predeceased by a son, David. Dr. Morley leaves his wife of 43 years, Beverly Morley (neé Beckworth), six children and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for May 25, 1 p.m. at St. George’s Anglican Church in Owen Sound, Ont.

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