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September 18, 1998 Volume 6, Number 2

Graduate Students

U of S geologist joins international team in Greenland

Editor's note: Following is the first of a series on U of S graduate students who either are studying here or have recently completed a post-graduate degree and are moving into the next leg of their career.

Dr. Ali Polat. Research of tremendous significance to the Canadian economy.

A U of S geologist has gone to Greenland to study some of the oldest rocks on earth.

Ali Polat, 34, joins an international team of scientists studying volcanic rock outcrops on Greenland's west coast. The 4-billion-year-old rocks date from the earliest formation of the earth's crust and may help scientists better understand how the earth's mantle and crust evolved through time.

Originally from Turkey, Polat has a BSc from Istanbul Technical University and an MSc from the University of Houston. He completed his PhD in geochemistry at the U of S earlier this year.

His fieldwork in Greenland marks the beginning of a two- to three-year postdoctoral fellowship with the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany. In both Germany and Greenland, he'll be working under the tutelage of Professor Albrecht Hoffmann, one of the world's leading authorities on geochemistry.

"The Max Planck Institute is very well known, particularly in the science world," Polat says. "It's a good place, but also very competitive. I'm a little bit excited, but I know I'll have to be working even harder."

Polat's PhD research focused on a part of the Canadian Shield near the northeastern shore of Lake Superior. By examining rock structures and trace chemicals within the rocks, he sought to better understand the processes that created the Shield some 3 billion years ago.

His work was part of a U of S research project headed by award-winning geology scholar Derek Wyman (now at the University of Western Australia) and U of S professor Rob Kerrich. Their $1- million study was funded in equal part by grants from the mining industry and from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Their findings have since been accepted for publication in several scientific journals worldwide.

Originally underwater

Polat says much of the Canadian Shield was originally underwater, an ocean plateau formed by volcanoes that existed at the bottom of a vast sea. But he notes that evidence in the rocks themselves indicate that they weren't all created at the same time or place.

Instead, his findings suggest that plate tectonics played an important role in creating the Shield by bringing different kinds of rocks together from a wide area, over a period of 20-60 million years.

"We found many different types of rocks occurring together," he says. "They were separate at the beginning but were brought together through tectonic processes. Some were from ocean plateaus, others from underwater trenches, subduction zones, and islands." The intense tectonic pressure that brought the rocks pressing together caused them to break, fold, and even fuse.

"This is the first time in that area that we found a geologic rock type called mélange - a rock sandwich - indicating that those rocks underwent intense deformation and mixing."

As well as helping scientists better understand the earth's geologic processes, Polat's PhD work also has important implications for the mining industry.

In discovering "chemical signatures" within different types of rocks, he was able to pinpoint areas that might contain volcanogenic massive sulfide (VMS) deposits, which contain copper, zinc, lead, and silver. Such a discovery can save mining companies time and money by narrowing down the possibilities of where to drill.

"Ali's research has led to a fundamental breakthrough in our understanding of ancient volcanic belts," says Professor Kerrich, who served as Polat's supervisor.

"It has led to new insights into how the crust of the earth formed billions of years ago. And it has produced new insights about where valuable mineral deposits have formed and why. These types of deposits have been of tremendous significance to the Canadian economy."

Kerrich estimates that more than a trillion dollars worth of minerals has been extracted from the Canadian Shield, with at least that much remaining untapped.

- Keith Solomon

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