Geological Survey of Canada

The Geological Survey of Canada is Canada's national agency for geoscientific information and research, with world-class expertise focusing on geoscience surveys, sustainable development of Canada's resources, natural geological hazards (earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, etc) and technology innovation. It is also the country's oldest scientific agency and one of its first government organizations. It was founded in 1842 to assist in developing a viable Canadian mineral industry by establishing the general geological base on which the industry could plan further detailed investigations. Throughout its long and colourful history, it has played a leading role in the exploration of Canada.


In 1841 the Legislature of the Province of Canada (the area that is now the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec) resolved that £1500 be granted to carry out a geological survey of the province. The first director, geologist William Edmond Logan, was appointed in April 1842, and established the Survey's headquarters in Montréal the following spring. Field work began that year, with Logan working between Pictou, Nova Scotia, and Québec's Gaspé Peninsula, and his assistant, Alexander Murray, between Lakes Erie and Huron in Ontario.

Rapid industrial advances in England since the late 18th century had shown the importance of coal to industrial and economic expansion. Thus, the search for a Canadian supply was the Survey's first priority. Results of the first 2 field seasons showed that no coal deposits were to be found in what was then Canada. Although disappointing, this finding prevented further futile expenditures by industry on coal exploration, and clearly demonstrated the benefits of a systematic geological survey. The Survey's mandate was renewed.

New Mandate

As the Survey took root additional staff were hired, including chemist T. Sterry Hunt and palaeontologist Elkanah Billings. By the late 1850s the Survey was a well-rounded organization conducting rigorous exploration, making maps, producing reports and maintaining a public museum. Canada's National Museums trace their roots back to the collections begun by the Survey.

Logan and officers of the Survey put together the first major collection of Canadian mineral samples the world had ever seen as Canada's contribution to the famous 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, England, and the Universal Exposition in Paris, France, in 1855. The Survey collections stimulated considerable international interest in Canadian minerals and brought personal honours to Logan.

One of the most important accomplishments of the Survey under Logan was the publication in 1863 of the Geology of Canada. This 983-page book and its hand-coloured maps (see Cartography) recorded everything then known about Canadian geology. The Confederation of Canada in 1867 increased 10-fold the Survey's geographic area of operations, with the addition of vast tracts of uncharted land in the west and north. The Survey's role as a primary contributor to the establishment of a mining industry in Canada was finally recognized by Parliament in 1877 with the granting of permanent status and a promise of continued funding. In 1881 the Survey moved from Montréal to Ottawa, Canada's new capital.

Early geologists were also explorers, geographers, botanists, zoologists and anthropologists with superb frontier survival skills. During the late 1880s and early 1900s, their talents were put to the test in investigations of the geology and mineral resources along proposed transcontinental railroad routes, and in exploratory surveys in Canada's west and north. G.M. Dawson, the Survey's third director, carried out extensive reconnaissance mapping in BC, prepared a comprehensive report on the Haida and mapped in the Yukon a decade before the Klondike Gold Rush.

Robert Bell explored the north and west for 34 years, including the coasts of Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. A.P. Low's work in central Labrador and the Ungava Peninsula included the discovery of the region's vast iron resources. In 1903-04 Low commanded the government expedition to northern waters in the Neptune, in a voyage that was Canada's first clear exercise of authority over the Arctic Archipelago.

In the 1880s, J.B. Tyrrell made major dinosaur fossil and coal discoveries in Alberta and explored the uncharted wilderness of the Barren Lands west of Hudson Bay. The surveys of J. Mackintosh Bell from Lake Athabasca to Great Bear Lake in 1900 resulted in observations that 30 years later led Gilbert LaBine to the discovery of uranium deposits at Port Radium.

Early 20th Century

The early years of the 20th century saw a curtailment of Survey operations as budgets were cut and staff were raided by industry or left to join the war. Studies with a strong economic focus continued and became even more pressing as Canada entered the Great Depression. The situation changed dramatically in 1935 with a massive one-year public works scheme aimed at generating employment and stimulating the economy. The Survey received an incredible $1 million for the field season - 10 times the amount originally budgeted. While creating logistical nightmares, the extra funding had tremendous benefits. Field mapping increased 10-fold, valuable new data were obtained and the Survey was able for the first time to make substantial use of aircraft.

World War II and Beyond

WWII brought new priorities, particularly the search for domestic sources of strategic metals and minerals. A period of peace, prosperity and growth followed the war, interest in Canada's mineral and energy resources grew rapidly and urban and industrial expansion required improved land-use planning.

In 1947 a landmark oil strike at Leduc, Alberta, marked the beginning of Western Canada's oil boom and an unprecedented demand for geological information about this energy-rich region. Similarly the realization that atomic fission had a peaceful application as a source of energy led to prospecting for uranium in boom proportions in the 1950s, and led to an increased knowledge of the general geology of the Canadian SHIELD.

The 1950s and 1960s were a time of scientific and technological growth, driven by a growing awareness of the importance of science to Canada's development. The blossoming of government scientific agencies, including the Geological Survey, was a natural result. Under the leadership of G. Hanson and J.M. Harrison, directors from 1953 to 1956 and 1956 to 1964 respectively, the Survey's field work became more far-ranging and brought together teams of scientists from many geoscience specialties. Its international connections were strengthened and Survey scientists provided leadership in building a strong international geoscience community.

In the 1950s airplane and aerial photography were supplemented by the helicopter as basic tools for geological mapping, and this increased the pace of geological mapping at a spectacular rate. A study conducted by C.S. Lord, chief geologist, showed that in 6 short years, 1952-58, the Survey had mapped about half as much of Canada at a reconnaissance scale as had been mapped in the previous 110 years - due mainly to the helicopter.

During this period, the Survey mounted large-scale air-supported multidisciplinary reconnaissance operations. The most ambitious was the 1955 "Operation Franklin" in the Arctic. Headed by Y.O. Fortier, who was later to become director of the Survey, the 28-person expedition, in a single field season, studied strategic locations and mapped almost 260 000 km2 of the High Arctic. The results of the work triggered industry interest in northern oil and gas exploration. Aeromagnetic mapping also started at this time, and aeromagnetic maps were eagerly sought by mining and petroleum companies to guide their exploration programs. The Survey became a world leader in the development of techniques and technologies in this field.

In 1966 the Survey became part of a new Dept of Energy, Mines and Resources, which had a mandate for national energy planning. This required quantitative estimates of Canada's reserves and resources of oil and gas, coal and uranium. To provide this fundamental information, the Survey pioneered new methods of resource appraisal that are now internationally recognized and utilized. Working with other agencies, the Survey also provided estimates of the national reserves of nickel, copper, zinc, lead, molybdenum and iron ore.

By the 1970s Survey research had a strong environmental and land-use focus. A major program carried out environmental impact assessments of large-scale developments such as the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. International debate on the ownership of the oceans' resources required geoscientific information from the Survey to support Canada's claims to an offshore "economic zone."The extension of Canada's offshore boundaries 371 km (200 nautical miles) from the coast (or beyond, to the edge of the continental shelf) increased by approximately 40% the Survey's already extensive 10 million km2 area of operations, and led to expansion of its offshore research capabilities.

In the 1980s in response to growing concerns for the security of energy supplies and indications that the offshore and Arctic frontiers contained valuable new resources, the Survey established a knowledge base from which the oil and gas potential of these regions could be determined. This work was carried out under the Frontier Geoscience Program.

Greater accountability to the taxpayer and increasingly complex administrative demands were continuing trends through the 1980s. The Survey adapted to government spending restraint, high inflation and the need to accommodate rapidly changing priorities by moving into more cost-sharing, cooperative ventures involving other governments, industry and universities at both national and international levels.

As a result of revolutionary ideas emerging from studies of the ocean floor, the Survey led efforts to secure Canada's membership in the international Ocean Drilling Program in 1984. Studies undertaken by scientists from member nations are producing new insights into the geological processes at work beneath the world's oceans, as well as better ways to identify the mineral and energy resources they conceal, and new exploration and development techniques.

Also in 1984 the Survey was one of the originators of LITHOPROBE, the largest geoscientific research program ever undertaken in Canada. This innovative program, using state-of-the-art seismic exploration and geophysical data processing techniques, allows scientists to "see" into the earth to incredible depths of up to 50 km. Besides providing new information about our planet's structure, LITHOPROBE contributes to mineral and energy exploration and to our understanding of earthquake risk and volcanic activity. The program now involves more than 700 scientists from universities, government and the petroleum and mining industries. It is widely regarded as one of the most successful scientific research projects in the world.

In 1986 the Earth Physics Branch of Energy, Mines and Resources was merged with the Survey. This group was the direct descendent of the Dominion Observatories, and it brought to the Survey a major geophysical arm which includes Canada-wide seismology and geomagnetic observatory networks.

Recent Trends

In the early 1990s the Survey took a lead role in developing a new National Geoscience Mapping Program (NATMAP), a cooperative effort involving federal, provincial and territorial surveys as well as Canadian universities, private industry and other interested groups. Its aim is to maximize the impact of funding available for new mapping of the bedrock and surficial geology of Canada by coordinating the activities of participating agencies.

The Survey's environmental work now looks at climate change, natural radioactivity and hydrogeology, and establishes baseline geochemical profiles of naturally occurring substances. Through a wide range of research into such natural hazards as earthquakes, landslides, magnetic storms, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods and ground instability, the Survey contributes to a better understanding of how the environment affects us, and how we affect the environment. The results contribute to building standards and emergency planning measures.

The Intergovernmental Geoscience Accord, signed in 1996, marked a milestone in the evolution of the Survey's working relationship with its provincial and territorial counterparts. The Accord defines the complementary roles of the 2 levels of government and establishes ways to streamline the delivery of geoscience programs to meet the needs of governments, the private sector and the Canadian public.

Dramatic changes in digital information and communications technology are transforming the way geological surveys manage and disseminate their geoscience information and knowledge. One initiative, which the Survey is developing with the provinces and territories, is the Geoscience Knowledge Network. It will provide instant access to digital geoscience information and knowledge on the Internet.

As part of a reorganization in the mid-1990s, the Survey became a part of the Earth Sciences sector of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). Its annual budget is now about $60 million, and its 550 employees are located at the Ottawa headquarters and regional offices in Sidney and Vancouver, BC, Calgary, Alta, Sainte-Foy, Qué, and Dartmouth, NS. In order to provide a clear and logical link between increasingly complex activities and the needs of its clients, the Survey's scientific activities are grouped into 6 broad program areas: bedrock and surficial geoscience, hydrocarbons, marine geoscience, minerals, geological hazards and environmental geoscience, and information.

While the computerized Geological Survey at the end of the 20th century is very different from that established by William Logan in 1842, similarities remain. The mining and petroleum industries continue to be major clients, and mapping the geology of Canada is still a primary concern. Today, however, research into environmental issues such as climate change has become a core part of its work. It is also clear that the immense task of a comprehensive geological examination of Canada may never end. As new theories and needs emerge, and new technologies are developed, the study of Canada's onshore and offshore will challenge Survey scientists for many decades to come.