Jim Henderson

I was lucky. Right after graduation in the mid-1970s, I started a job mapping permafrost distribution, ice conditions, and aggregates in the Mackenzie Valley of the Northwest Territories. One of the first projects was to determine if a pipeline passing between two fish over-wintering areas on the Yukon Coastal Plain would have an ecological impact. This was a truly environmental application of geophysics but it was not labeled as such until many years later.

I have been involved in environmental applications of geophysics since that original survey. People separate environmental geophysics from oil and gas geophysics, however, there is only one core field of geophysics. I recognized this perspective after gaining experience as a geophysicist and then returning to university for a Masters in Environmental Design. For example, the tools that are used in mineral exploration are directly applicable to solving environmental problems. I found it very helpful to learn the jargon of the environmental discipline. It is easier to adapt geophysics to suit environmental issues when you have a broad background.

Like many people in this profession, I take a life-long learning approach to my work. There is a small community of geophysicists in North America. It is easy to network and share knowledge with this group through the Internet and at conferences. I also read trade journals and work closely with other professionals who share my interests. My current learning focus is a doctoral-level degree in the area of environmental geophysics. The future of geophysics is very promising. We are able to do things now that were impossible to consider thirty years ago. As the tools we use become more advanced we continue to find new applications for their use.

My plans are to take more of a mentoring role in the next few years, helping others to accomplish their goals in the profession. By sharing my experience with the energetic and intelligent upcoming generation of geophysicists, we will all benefit. Don’t focus just on geophysics. Get an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. If you start with a broad educational background, continue to learn on the job and enhance your education throughout your career, you will do very well in this type of work. Establish contacts and gain experience by getting involved with organizations that work with problems requiring the skills of a geophysicist.

Develop your thinking skills and gain a good understanding of environmental management systems. There is a great variety of rewarding work within the field of geophysics. I work as part of a highly-skilled team. When a client presents a situation we begin the planning and conceptual design of the project that will result in solving the problem. An example of this type of work would be saline pollution of a fresh water well located on an island surrounded by salt water. To determine how to fix this problem we map the distribution of the salt water, determine the causes of its inland movement and propose solutions to the client.

The client can pass this information on to others who will implement the best solution. You need a passion for this type of work. Time is spent in the office and in the field. The person who collects the field data does the data interpretation. There can be extensive travel, however, most of my work is done in Western Canada. The flexibility that is found in this career allows a geophysicist to work almost anywhere in Canada. The tools we used to map permafrost distribution in the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project were prototypes. These instruments have since been improved and used in a variety of new applications. Because of the success of our work in the 1970s with new technology, the instrument manufacturer grew to become a world leader. They have developed better tools for use in other applications. All groups involved have benefited from this technology that came out of a need to protect the environment.