Below the Waterline – GSC at the BIO

Read about the Geological Survey of Canada’s science at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

The Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) is a modern oceanographic research facility, established in 1962 by the Federal Government of Canada and is located on the shores of the Bedford Basin in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Over the last 50 years it has grown to become Canada's largest centre for ocean research.

The Institute performs targeted research, mandated by the Canadian government, to provide 'peer' reviewed advice and support to government decision making on a broad range of ocean issues, including sovereignty, safety and security, environmental protection, the health of the oceans, safe and accessible waterways, the sustainable use of natural resources (fisheries, minerals, oil & gas) and the integrated management large ocean management areas.

Oceanography, by nature, is a multidisciplinary research field, involving geological, physical, chemical and biological research disciplines. To solve problems related to the oceans, BIO houses over 600 researchers, engineers, technicians, natural resource and environmental managers, and support staff from a variety of different disciplines. Currently, four federal departments are located at BIO: Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), Environment Canada (EC), and the Department of National Defence (DND). The facilities are all managed by Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC).


  1. From Canada 150 to GSC 175, BIO Expo 2017 gives NRCAN plenty of reasons to celebrate
  2. Science @ BIO – What’s in your smart phones and other modern gadgets?
  3. Art and science come together like never before
  4. Maritime Rocks: A Southern Origin?

From Canada 150 to GSC 175, BIO Expo 2017 gives NRCAN plenty of reasons to celebrate

By Julie Root

The year 2017 has been a significant one for Canada. It’s Canada’s 150th anniversary, and every government department and agency has been looking back on the past 150 years, sharing their stories and celebrating their accomplishments with Canadians. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is no exception. All year, scientists have been telling Canadians about the department’s contributions to exploration, marine geoscience and sustainable resource development — some of which were made decades before Canada was even a country.

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) turns 175

The GSC, part of NRCan, is celebrating 175 years exploring and studying Canada’s vast land and ocean resources. As Canada’s oldest scientific agency, the GSC has played a leading role in shaping this country from the ground up.

In the Atlantic region, GSC scientists work together with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other government departments at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO), Canada’s national centre of excellence in ocean research located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. GSC scientists at BIO focus on marine and coastal geology, petroleum geology, geophysics, geochemistry and geo-technology.

BIO hosts 23,000 visitors at BIOExpo 2017

In celebration of more than five decades of research into Canada’s ocean resources, BIO scientists showcased their work to thousands of curious visitors. The BIOExpo is held every five years and this was perhaps the biggest year yet with nearly 23,000 visitors touring more than 70 exhibits. Researchers showed students from local schools and the public that science is alive and well. Visitors waited in long lines to see science in action, demonstrations and participate in hands-on science activities. They learned about coastal erosion, Arctic science, what cell phones are made from and much more!

Over the past 175 years, Canadian scientists have countless stories to tell and, in many ways, their work is just beginning.

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Science @ BIO – What’s in your smart phones and other modern gadgets?

Today’s cutting-edge technologies from smart phones to hybrid vehicles are becoming a way of life as society relies more and more on these gadgets and looks to reduce its carbon footprint. Have you ever wondered where our modern technology comes from?

Research scientist Dr. Mike Parsons with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) is looking at this question closely. Aside from the more familiar elements like nickel and copper, Parsons says new technologies also require many rare earth elements. There are 17 different rare earth elements and they have names many have never heard of like cerium or thulium. The touch screen interface we’ve all come to rely on, the advanced medical imaging equipment used to diagnose diseases faster and more accurately, the latest advancements in military technologies – are just a few of these technological applications that use rare earth elements to make them work.

Mining rare earths and separating them from one another is a complicated task. As many of these elements are often found together, the challenge is to find a way to separate them and extract them from the earth in a cost-effective way that mitigates environmental impacts. As part of NRCan’s Environmental Geoscience Program, GSC scientists are studying a former niobium mine in Oka, Quebec, where the ore is also enriched in rare earth elements. These studies will help to predict the potential environmental impacts at future rare earth mines across Canada, and will help to guide management of mine wastes.

While it’s important as individuals to move toward more environmentally-friendly technologies, it is also important to note that, like other mining operations, extracting rare earth elements creates its own environmental footprint. As society becomes increasingly reliant on modern technologies, it’s vital to understand both the security and availability of rare earth elements as well as how sourcing these materials impacts the environment. Canada has an opportunity to develop new supplies of these vital materials as a crucial step to ensuring the technologies we rely on remain secure and available.

Carbonatite with niobium and rare earth elements

Carbonatite with niobium and rare earth elements

Dr. Mike Parsons holds his smart phone in front of his #BIOExpo17 exhibit. Smart phones are full of rare earth elements.

Dr. Mike Parsons holds his smart phone in front of his #BIOExpo17 exhibit. Smart phones are full of rare earth elements.

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Art and science come together like never before

Spring 2017’s Oceans 11 class from J.L. Ilsley High School, with teacher Frank van Blacorn (centre-left), in front of replica seafloor artwork donated to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography

Spring 2017’s Oceans 11 class from J.L. Ilsley High School, with teacher Frank van Blacorn (centre-left), in front of replica seafloor artwork donated to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

What do bathymetric maps and soft porcelain clay have in common? If you’re a student at J.L. Ilsley High School in Halifax, N.S. you know the answer. Last spring, teacher Frank van Blarcom’s Oceans 11 class got to study the ocean floor of the North Atlantic in a creative and non-traditional way. For this lesson, they rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty recreating the ocean floor through art.

Using bathymetric maps (maps that illustrate submerged terrain), students were tasked with recreating the terrain of the seafloor by carving the features into soft porcelain clay tiles. Once the students got the shape mastered, they needed to bring their creation to life by using their knowledge of geology to create paint colours. The class created their own paint colours using raw ochre and iron oxides. Some of the red iron oxides they used were scraped from the rock walls of an old mine shaft while the students were on an expedition into an abandoned iron ore mine. The distinctive yellow, blue and green colours were created by mixing acrylic medium with historic pigments brought in from New York City. Finally, the students accented their piece with handmade creations of real and imagined sea life.

Oceans 11 student paints mermaid clay sculpture to accent seafloor artwork.

Oceans 11 student paints mermaid clay sculpture to accent seafloor artwork.

Frank van Blarcom says at first it took some time for the students to get going but once they got into it, they were totally immersed. “It’s amazing that what started out as 20cm x 30cm blocks of clay turned into this wonderful creation. The sense of pride felt by the students and especially their parents when they saw the end result was extraordinary.”

Oceans 11 students admiring the finished product of their hard work.

Oceans 11 students admiring the finished product of their hard work.

Lending a hand through it all were ceramic artist Sarah Cheetham, oceanographer Kathy Gartner-Kepkay, multimedia teacher Emile Kuchler as well as project coordinator Sabine Fels. The class received financial support for the project through ArtsSmarts Nova Scotia and the Halifax Regional School Board’s Arts Express program.

The students graciously donated the finished piece of artwork to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S. where it is currently on display in the public tour area.

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Maritime Rocks: A Southern Origin?

Multicoloured volcanic ash layers, Cape St. Mary, NS. Photo – Dr. Rob Fensome

Multicoloured volcanic ash layers, Cape St. Mary, NS. Photo – Dr. Rob Fensome

The sediments, rocks and fossils that lie beneath Canada’s vast lands and oceans have many stories to tell. Uncovering these stories and what they mean is what scientists with NRCan’s Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) do best. In fact, for the past 175 years, explorers with the GSC and their provincial/territorial counterparts have played a major role in telling the geological stories of Canada: the discoveries are endless.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating geological stories about the Maritime Provinces is reflected by the amazing diversity of rocks found across the region, especially along the shoreline. This is in contrast to southern Ontario, for example, which is mainly underlain by large tracts of flat-lying limestone. The Maritimes are made up of parts of the Earth’s crust that originated in the Southern Hemisphere: indeed as far south as the South Pole. You read that right. It turns out that most of older rocks of Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick originated on microcontinents (what geologists call terranes) that were located in the “deep south” 400 to 550 million years ago. Such a fascinating geological history makes the region a modern-day geological playground according to GSC scientists at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) in Dartmouth.

Microcontinents Ganderia, Avalonia and Meguma formed 500 million years ago near the South Pole. After 400 million, years they became parts of larger continents, and eventually, formed parts of the Maritime Provinces we know today.

Microcontinents Ganderia, Avalonia and Meguma formed 500 million years ago near the South Pole. After 400 million, years they became parts of larger continents, and eventually, formed parts of the Maritime Provinces we know today.

Metamorphosed sedimentary Meguma rocks at Blue Rocks, NS. The light and dark bands represent the sedimentary layers deposited near the South Pole in a long-lost ocean. They have been deeply buried, folded and crinkled by tectonic forces and have subsequently been uplifted and eroded to their present-day position and appearance. Photo – Dr. Rob Fensome

Metamorphosed sedimentary Meguma rocks at Blue Rocks, NS. The light and dark bands represent the sedimentary layers deposited near the South Pole in a long-lost ocean. They have been deeply buried, folded and crinkled by tectonic forces and have subsequently been uplifted and eroded to their present-day position and appearance. Photo – Dr. Rob Fensome

Rob Fensome, a Research Scientist with GSC Atlantic at the BIO says that we know the latitude at which rocks originated because many of the iron-bearing minerals in them take on a magnetic signature that can be used, by way of sophisticated instruments, to determine the latitude at which they originally formed.

Sedimentary rock originally formed when southern Nova Scotia was a microcontinent, the Meguma Terrane, near the South Pole. Photo – Julie Root

Sedimentary rock originally formed when southern Nova Scotia was a microcontinent, the Meguma Terrane, near the South Pole. Photo – Julie Root

The magnetic signature of the rocks isn’t the only evidence that the terranes of the Maritimes spent millions of years in the south. When the terranes amalgamated with larger continents, eventually to form the supercontinent Pangea, they continued to drift north as part of the larger entity. This is logical; if the region started out near the South Pole some 500 million years ago, it must have travelled to northern mid-latitudes, across the equator, since then. Apart from the magnetic data, evidence that this region crossed the tropics comes from the salt (at for example at Malagash, NS), potash (for example at Sussex, NB) and gypsum deposits (for example in the Windsor area of NS). Fensome notes that thick formations of such “evaporite” rocks, could only have formed in hot, dry tropical seas. A little later, geologically speaking, wet tropical conditions prevailed, leading to the deposition of peat in large bogs; with time, burial and compaction, the Maritimes’ coal deposits were formed. Such evidence confirms that the region crossed the tropics between about 375 and 275 million years ago.

Gypsum specimen - Gypsum is a mineral that forms in evaporating seas and in associated cracks in the crust. Gypsum comes in several varieties: this is an example of satin spar gypsum because of its fibrous texture. Photo – Julie Root

Gypsum specimen - Gypsum is a mineral that forms in evaporating seas and in associated cracks in the crust. Gypsum comes in several varieties: this is an example of satin spar gypsum because of its fibrous texture. Photo – Julie Root

Gypsum cliffs at Sweets Corner, near Windsor, NS. Such thick evaporite deposits in the Maritimes are compelling evidence that a large part of the region crossed the tropics around 350 million years ago. Photo – Dr. Rob Fensome

Gypsum cliffs at Sweets Corner, near Windsor, NS. Such thick evaporite deposits in the Maritimes are compelling evidence that a large part of the region crossed the tropics around 350 million years ago. Photo – Dr. Rob Fensome

From sandstone to volcanic rock to coal and beyond, there is a rich diversity of geology in the Maritimes with origins as far away as the South Pole. The long journey of these terranes over hundreds of millions of years make for interesting geological stories and discoveries in a small region. In the Maritimes, a scientist does not have to travel very far to uncover a whole new geological world.

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