“Discovering new things is amazing...”

An interview with David Mosher

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
David Mosher

David Mosher is a Senior Research Scientist and Program Manager for Natural Resources Canada at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), Halifax. He is involved in geoscience research focused on identification of geohazards and sustainable development of Canada’s resources, amongst many other things.

David is a staunch maritimer and has undertaken umpteen research expeditions in Canadian waters, be it to explore slope instability and gas hydrate resources on the east coast, survey the high Arctic with seismic, study geohazards off Canada’s west coast, or identify deep ocean disposal sites. He is a well-published scientist, who has occupied many prestigious executive positions. David has delivered many keynote addresses and has volunteered on numerous Councils and Committees.

Apart from holding high positions at the GSC, David is also an Adjunct Professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, where he supervises B.Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. students. So far he has supervised 3 post-doc, 5 Ph.D., 8 M.Sc. and 6 B.Sc. students.

David sportingly agreed to our request for an interview, something I had been hoping to conduct for RECORDER readers for many years.

Following are excerpts from the interview.

David, let us begin by asking you about your educational qualifications and your work experience.

I was doing an undergraduate geology degree at Acadia University when I landed a summer job at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography with Natural Resources Canada (then called Energy Mines and Resources). The experience, particularly my first sea-time experience, turned me on to research and specifically to marine geophysical and geological research. From there I went to Memorial University to do a Masters degree in Earth Sciences. I worked for several years back at Bedford Institute of Oceanography before leaving to return to do a Ph.D. in Oceanography at Dalhousie University, specializing in marine geophysics. Following my degree, I was hired by Natural Resources Canada (Geological Survey of Canada) to work at the Pacific Geoscience Centre. I worked largely in research concerning marine geohazards and neotectonics. The moratorium on the west coast prevented much blue water science, so in 2000 I moved to Halifax to work again at Bedford Institute of Oceanography. At that time, deep water exploration off of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland was in full swing and significant amounts of new data were being acquired.

How did you switch over from geology to a geophysical topic for your Ph.D.?

It’s difficult to work in the marine environment without geophysics. As a student, I noticed that most researchers working in high resolution marine geophysics were not trained geophysicists but geologists who were using geophysics as a tool. I wanted to understand the physics behind these tools and approach the high resolution domain with a strong background in the underlying principles. I sought a Ph.D. therefore, that would provide me with this understanding.

So, you joined GSC, Sidney, BC and remained with it ever since, just moving from its Pacific Division to the Atlantic Division, close to home. Tell us about it.

The GSC has provided me with a wealth of opportunities to acquire and publish data from around the globe and to walk the line between industry, academia, regulators and government. I’ve been able to develop equipment and test hypotheses within the framework of the Government’s mandates, and I’ve met some terrific people along the way. These have been fun elements to the job and obviously have kept me here for 20 years now.

Looking back at your career so far, how do you feel? Is it a feeling of satisfaction or something else? Why?

I’ve been satisfied with my career to date. As budgets have tightened over the years, it has gotten harder and harder to do the research you feel is necessary, but that is a reality everywhere I think. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in some great projects but perhaps the most rewarding has been working on the Canadian Law of the Sea program for the past five years, helping to define Canada’s marine outer limits. It has involved some great field work, acquiring data in the high Arctic, for example, where no data previously existed, so it is exploration in its truest sense. But it is also of critical importance to the country.

What is the nature of the work that is done at the GSCs?

The nature of work at the GSC is broad and multi-faceted. Specific to my work, I am focused on the marine environment and work in a subdivision called “Environmental Marine Geology”. My colleagues and I are engaged in offshore geologic mapping using geology and geophysics that serve multiple purposes including regional surface and subsurface mapping, identification and understanding of offshore geohazards, and identification of constraints to offshore development, as examples. These same mapping skills are critical, as it turns out, to preparing the submission for the Law of the Sea under UNCLOS, so as I mentioned, I’ve been working 100% of my time on helping develop the Canadian submission.

Where do you get the funding to carry out research activities at GSC? Does GSC provide the necessary funds or you get them from outside? What other agencies provide such funding?

Marine research is expensive, so not all funding comes internally. There is a variety of sources and it varies from program to program. There is core funding that pays for basic infrastructure, there are program funds to support targeted national geoscience programs (typically 4-6 years in duration) that address specific priorities of the government, there are special funds that are meant to accelerate or stimulate research in very targeted research areas that are typically proposal driven and competitive, and sometimes there is partnership money, where we team up with other government departments, external agencies, academia or industry to collaborate on projects. In all cases, the funding is used to advance scientific understanding in directions that are important for Canada and are priorities for the Government of Canada. Additionally, I’ve been able to secure some funding through my adjunct status with Dalhousie University to support graduate student research. I might add that industry has been a big supporter of this education/research component by contributing valuable data sets. It is rare for academics to receive 3D seismic volumes and with these we are able to not only greatly augment our research but also develop modern technical skills in students, many of whom then go into industry.

How has it turned out for you by way of getting the funds to perform your research?

If I look back over the course of my career, I think I’ve been extremely fortunate in funding for research. My work has been applied research and as such, I think it is readily justifiable with concrete examples of what outcomes will be achieved: reduce risk and facilitate exploration. The Government has a responsibility in regulation of offshore activities and in identifying engineering and environmental hazards, so it is important to provide information to the public, to regulators and to industry on these matters for sound decision making. In this latest phase of my career, preparing the Canadian submission for the Law of the Sea is a high priority with the Government of Canada and the skill set to prepare this submission exists within its research labs and offices. It has been a relatively well-funded program as a result and it will have an impact on offshore geoscience for years to come.

You have been undertaking research expeditions almost every year and sometimes a few times during the same year. I guess this is required to acquire the field data for the projects you need to carry out, which are later processed and analyzed. Please tell us about the diverse nature of these projects.

Over the decades, the GSC developed a niche in high resolution marine geophysics and shallow coring combined with geotechnical engineering – at one time really leading the world in this regard. Particularly in the past, these data were not acquired by industry. As site survey information become more and more important for well site selection and approvals, the value of these data became obvious. We were and still are in a unique position to provide these data with interpretations, so we’ve had numerous partnerships with industry and we work closely with regulators on regional geoscience framework studies that can be applied to environmental, geohazard and resource issues. In many cases, this role has required significant field time. I particularly enjoy the geohazard component of our research as it requires geophysics, engineering (geotechnique) and many aspects of geology (sedimentology, stratigraphy) to fully address geohazard issues. It has also involved tool development because of the non-standard applications required in the marine environment.

In addition, I’ve managed to take our technologies and our skills abroad at times, and by and large, our organization has been supportive – even when the research did not specifically involve Canada. For example, few people know it, but we were amongst the first to arrive on the scene with our seismic equipment on an international expedition off of Sumatra in 2005, shortly after the tsunami. It was a terrific contribution that Canada made to understanding the tsunami event.

Please tell us about two of your most exciting experiences in the field.

That is a tough question. As a student and young professional, I lived for a number of summers on the ice in the high Arctic, collecting geophysical data, cores and water samples as the ice camp drifted at the whim of the weather and currents. It included lots of helicopter time, running to remote sample stations. That was tough and exciting work and is likely now a thing of the past, since ice conditions are so tenuous in the high north. I would have to add that these latest expeditions as Chief Scientist on the ice-breaker CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent to the highest reaches of the Arctic Ocean acquiring seismic reflection and refraction data in 100% ice cover were pretty exciting too. Overcoming all of the challenges and the tremendous sense of discovery was exciting.

How about some memorable incidents?

I think one of my most memorable experiences is being a Co-Chief Scientist on an Ocean Drilling Program Leg. ODP and its successor IODP is a tremendously successful program and model of international cooperation. It has logged some of the world’s greatest discoveries and many of the world’s greatest earth scientists have participated on drilling legs. Each drilling leg is unique, but it’s a fantastic environment in which 20 or so scientists are thrown together to focus on only their scientific objectives 24/7 for 60 days. It’s a tremendous experience at the best of times, but to serve as a Co-Chief scientist to such an auspicious group of scientists is truly exciting.

After having achieved so much, what motivates you now?

I am not sure that I’ve ‘achieved so much’… but motivation is not an issue. What keeps me going is discovery and the desire to understand (curiosity). As we all probably appreciate, learning something simply invites more questions, so it is not as though we will ever have the ‘answer’ or all of the answers. I think this is particularly true in the earth sciences, where we interpret the past, but we can rarely confirm our interpretations.

What is it that you love the most about your work?

No question, it’s the sense of discovery. I like playing with technology, for sure, but discovering new things is amazing. I particularly like the Earth Sciences because I think we bridge the gap between many disciplines, including the arts. Geological/geophysical interpretation requires knowledge of physics, engineering and of course, earth sciences, but additionally requires somewhat of an artistic flare that includes 3D visualization (actually 4D) and an ability to see what isn’t there. Of course, two interpreters will ‘see’ different things, but that makes it interesting too.

You have an impressive list of publications or reports that you have written over the years. How did you manage all this?

I think any researcher will tell you that he/she needs to publish more. I am no exception… I get attracted to the field work and let the publication record slide. My pre-retirement objective is to get all those accumulated data published! It is important, however, to get our message out there…not just within formal publications but in many different forms of communication to reach the general public as well as our colleagues. I think too much weight in academia is placed on our formal publication record, when our real target should be our record of communicating to the lay public. They are the ones who can ultimately use our information to make a difference. And most of us are not particularly good at communicating to the public. As a result, we tend to lose the information battle when it comes to such things as environmental debates.

In addition to your day job, you are also an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University and have been guiding students for their B.Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees. Where do you get the time to do all this?

No question that students can be a lot of work. I don’t think students appreciate how much work it can be to make a project for them and fund them. If they complete their work then it’s a great contribution to the project, but if they don’t complete, then it’s a huge loss of investment. Having said that, my principal motivation is that a few stellar individuals created these opportunities for me when I was young and I owe it to them and to the profession to give it back. In our field – particularly high resolution marine geophysics, there is no school that teaches these skills, so it is critical to the profession to take on students and mentor them and provide them with opportunities.

What do you think is your most important contribution, one that people will remember Dave Mosher for?

I don’t think that there is anything specific that I, as an individual, will be remembered for. I think one of the most important things I’ve worked on with a whole team is the UNCLOS work to help define Canada’s outer limits and I hope the contribution that this team has provided will be remembered. Maybe I’ll discover something yet for which I’ll be remembered… who knows! We discovered a new seamount in the Arctic Ocean a couple of years ago!

What in your opinion are the three most important unsolved problems in geophysics? Why?

I cannot speak to the entire discipline of geophysics, but in the seismic world, I’d say the three most important problems are resolution, resolution, and resolution. We are forever seeking better resolution (horizontal and vertical) from our seismic data so we can better image the seafloor and its subsurface and draw the remotely sensed data closer to reality. There are clearly limitations in physics that we approach but tremendous gains have been made in acquisition and processing technologies in the last decade that take us close to these physical limitations.

What other interests do you have?

First and foremost, I have a family. That keeps you grounded! I’ve been involved in the lives of my children with coaching, etc.

I play music – mostly traditional stuff – but I enjoy all forms. I play regularly in a session at a local tavern… and there is always opportunity on the ships to play with shipmates. A few of us at work get together some noon hours and play too and we play for benefits and such. It seems to me there is a lot of musical talent amongst geoscientists… mine stems from my days as a grad student in Newfoundland, where seemingly everyone played an instrument.

I also still run triathlons… but I am getting slower. The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius which is Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger. Mine is Vetustioribus, Pinguior, Tardior, which is Older, Fatter, Slower. I placed third in my age group in my last one (of course, there were only four in my age group).

What would be your message for young geoscientists entering our profession?

I think the geoscientist is in a unique position with regard to pressures facing society today, such as climate change and resource shortages. We understand more than others the way the Earth works and what it has endured up until now. Through tackling tectonic, structural and stratigraphic problems, we learn to think not only in 3 dimensions (a few other professions, such as architecture may do the same), but we learn to think in the fourth dimension as well – TIME. No other profession does that as we do. As John McPhee says in the Annals of the Former World,“…with their 4 dimensional minds and their interdisciplinary ways, geologists can wriggle out of almost anything.”

I think this knowledge and these abilities empower us to create solutions. So, I tell students and young practitioners to get involved… get out to the public and talk about what we know. Get out into the schools and other aspects of society and tell people what you know. Get involved in societies to promote the geosciences. If we don’t tell them, who will? As Wendell Barry, American Author, said, “The Earth is what we all have in common.”


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