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Friday, September 29, 2023


Society awards UH geology prof

A theory that is being taught in educational systems around the world can be partially attributed to a UH professor, and nearly 40 years later he is being recognized for it.

One of geology’s most prestigious awards, the Penrose Medal, was granted to geosciences professor Kevin Burke, who is considered a pioneer in continental drift and plate tectonics.

"Because I have worked in many different parts of the world and in varied aspects of geology I have been able to see applications of plate tectonic understanding to a wide range of research problems," Burke said.

The Geological Society of America announced in May that Burke would be the organization’s 2007 recipient, an award that he has always held a deep respect for.

"I know you’re kind of expected to say you’re overwhelmed, but it’s true," Burke said in a release. "People I think very highly of have won this award."

Since his early childhood Burke has felt a strong draw to his field, but it wasn’t until he was granted a scholarship in geology from the University of London that he began to pursue the science formally.

"It did not take me long to grasp that geology was the right field for me," Burke said.

While Burke taught at a university in Nigeria in 1967, he observed the work of an earthquake researcher that proved instrumental to his research.

"(The researcher) studied some small earthquakes in the Atlantic ocean west of where I was working," he said. "His work triggered my new interests."

Burke was the first to write about the collision of the Indian and Asian plates, which created the Himalaya mountain range.

As the Earth’s tectonic plates move at the rate of fingernail growth, roughly four centimeters a year, Burke’s research has taken him millions of years into the past to understand how tectonic plates can reshape continents or form new seas and oceans.

Burke said that plate tectonics are "the gift that goes on giving."

"We suddenly understood how the world works," Burke said in a release.

Plate tectonics expanded on previous theories as to how continents seemed to be shifting. Scientists noticed that continents such as Africa and South America were fitting together like a puzzle piece, and as researches further investigated, the theory was integrated into mainstream geology.

Focusing on plate movements has allowed geologists like Burke to keep track of the current developments of the Earth, such as the widening of the Red Sea into an ocean, and how it can change the appearance of Earth millions of years from now.

In 1992 another UH geologist, John Dewey, was also awarded the Penrose medal.

Colleagues who have won the medal, such as Dewey, have made Burke feel honored to be among them.

"Generally I can say that looking at the list of Penrose medalists has made me feel very small," Burke said. "So many of them have been the great heroes of geology."

The Penrose Medal is open geologists worldwide and given to those with outstanding achievement in original research.

In the past, recipients for the Penrose Medal have included those from prominent universities such as Stanford University, the University of Oxford and the University of California, Berkley.

"Kevin Burke is an exceptional scientist who has made significant contributions both in the field and in the classroom," Provost and UH Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Foss said in a release.

Burke, who is known among geologists for his work in explaining the origins of hot spots, came to the UH community in 1983.

Hot spots are areas such as Hawaii and Iceland where narrow streams of hot mantle create volcanic islands far from plate margins, and it is a topic Burke has became familiar with.

During Burke’s five-decade career he has traveled to various parts of the country and has worked at universities in Africa, Canada and the Caribbean.

The British national, who earned his doctorate at the University of London, will receive the Penrose Medal at the GSA’s meeting in October.

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