Finding hotspots in the theory of plate tectonics

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Canadian geophysicist and plate tectonics pioneer John Tuzo Wilson, in 1992. Author: Stephen Morris.

Molly Gatt

Algonquin College Journalism Program

Pangea is the super continent made up of almost all of Earth’s land mass. Roughly 200 million years ago Pangea began to separate into different continents. But it was only a few decades ago that we fully understood why. The answer was plate tectonics and continental drift, the forces behind the large scale movements in the Earth’s lithosphere, which is made up of the Earth’s crust and the upper mantle. Today we know that the world is made up of eight large plates and several smaller ones that are responsible for Earth’s geological features.

One of the pioneers behind plate tectonics was Ottawa-born John Tuzo Wilson. He was initially skeptical of plate tectonics but he went on to spend years validating their existence. In 1963 Tuzo Wilson proposed that the mantle has fixed hotspots and when plates move over these hotspots they create volcanoes. Before this scientists were unable to explain how active volcanoes are found thousands of kilometers from plate boundaries.

Two years later he proposed a new type of boundary known as transform faults, also known as conservative plate boundaries. Transform faults move horizontally, connecting divergent boundaries to convergent boundaries, letting plates maneuver around each other so no oceanic crust would be created or destroyed.

Tuzo Wilson’s theory tied all other theories about plate tectonics and continental drift together making them a viable discovery. On top of his work in plate tectonics, Tuzo Wilson was the first person to suggest using air photos in mapping and was responsible for the first glacial map of Canada. He died 1993 and was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2003.

Here is an excellent biography on Tuzo Wilson which shows his compassion for the science.

He was a well honoured and awarded Canadian geophysicist and geologist who achieved worldwide acclaim for his contributions to the theory of plate tectonics.

These videos are from the 'The Planet of Man' series made in 1975. At the beginning of each segment, Tuzo Wilson is steering his rugged thirty-ton Hong Kong junk boat (which he received from a fellow student.) explaining certain geological processes.

Some interesting notes about Tuzo Wilson:

  • He was once dubbed "the benign cyclone of science."
  • First graduate of a Canadian university in the field of geophysical studies (1930)
  • Professor of geophysics at the University of Toronto.
  • In the 1960s he became the world's leading spokesman for the theory of continental drift.
  • Range of mountains in Antarctica is named for him.
  • His name was given to a young Canadian submarine volcano called the Tuzo Wilson Seamounts
  • Made an Officer of the Order of Canada
  • Director General of the Ontario Science Centre from 1974-1985
  • He headed up an Ontario government enquiry into aluminum wiring.
  • Circumnavigated the globe about eight times
  • 'Tuzo' was the maiden name belonging to his mother
  • His doctoral advisor was Harry Hess
  • After the war he led Exercise Musk-Ox, the only long (3,400 miles) automotive expedition ever made through the Canadian Arctic
  • He was married for 55 years
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