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Earth Explorer is an online source of news, expertise and applied knowledge for resource explorers and earth scientists. Sponsored by Geosoft.

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Colin Reeves
Providing a fresh angle on exploration

The turning point came when Colin Reeves was studying theoretical physics and chemistry at the University of Cambridge.

"I was getting desperate for something less academic and more hands on," says Reeves, co-founder of Geosoft and principal of Earthworks BV, a Netherlands-based company that applies global tectonics to exploration problems. "I stumbled into earth sciences in my final year. That dispelled the blues I was having with all those theoretical subjects."

To this day, Reeves, 62, bristles at the word "academic" to describe his career, even though he went on to complete a PhD at the University of Leeds, became professor of exploration geophysics and later chair at the International Institute for Aerial Survey and Earth Sciences (ITC) in Delft and holds an honorary professorship at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

He prefers to emphasize the practical nature of his work, which includes training a generation of geophysicists from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. During his tenure at ITC, some 250 students – including 50 post-graduates - passed through his department. Many now hold senior positions in their home countries.

Earlier in his career, a predilection for this "hands on" approach motivated Reeves to pool his resources with Ian MacLeod, a colleague at geophysical consulting firm Paterson, Grant and Watson (PGW) in Toronto.  In 1982 they purchased an early model IBM personal computer, hooked it up to an old TV in Reeves's house and started developing software designed to ease the exploration process.

That informal tinkering evolved into Geosoft Inc. in 1986. More than two decades later, Geosoft is a worldwide supplier of exploration software with offices in South America, Europe, South Africa and Australia. Reeves sold his interest to MacLeod when he made the leap from Toronto to Delft, where he lives to this day. MacLeod is now chairman of Geosoft and serves as the company's chief technologist.

"It was the biggest career move I've ever made, and it was not without a few misgivings," says Reeves. "I loved Toronto and was excited about what Ian was doing, but I couldn't quite see the way ahead for myself at PGW at the time."

His subsequent position at ITC allowed Reeves to cement his reputation as an internationally renowned specialist in airborne geophysics. In the late 1980s he initiated the digital compilation of aeromagnetic data for the whole of Africa, Arabia, India and the Middle East. A few years later, he supervised the production of the first magnetic and gravity anomaly images of Australia.
But the ITC's dedication to geophysical research and training at the Delft campus waned and, by the end of the millennium, Reeves was looking for new opportunities. He opted for early retirement in 2004 and formed Earthworks to advise on projects where the combination of geology, paleo-geographic reconstruction, geophysics and digital cartography can provide a fresh angle on exploration.

His use of airborne geophysical coverage to understand the geology and tectonics of the southern continents (such as the fragmentation of Gondwana and the consequent generation of sedimentary basins), for instance, is of particular interest to the oil sector. 

Africa, where he began his career with the geological survey of Botswana, is a common geographical theme for Reeves. Many of his ITC students were African, and many of his current projects are based on the continent. He is currently advising Nigeria on a new airborne geophysical survey of the country that is nearing completion and entering the interpretation phase.

But he often finds himself frustrated with the lack of access to data in Africa and considers this a key barrier to the kind of insights a more holistic approach to exploration can provide.

"Many national authorities think that a geophysical map is a kind of treasure map best kept under lock and key," he says. "There is a failure to understand the many stages between data and resource discovery and the intellectual input required throughout those stages."

That may be changing. In March 94 representatives from 30 nations met in Windhoek, Namibia for GIRAF 2009, a workshop designed to start building a pan-African network of geoscience information knowledge and develop a strategic plan for future information gathering and sharing on the continent.

Along those lines, Reeves considers GIS-supported exploration the way of the future. He calls GIS the "intellect amplifier" that can lead to new ideas and help geoscientists share those ideas with one another.
"We could gain greater insight if only we could see what we already know more clearly," says Reeves. "Suddenly - within the last few years - computer technology is good enough to make this possible, so the focus should be on how best to organise data and how to persuade those holding data of the importance of letting people work with it as freely and easily as possible."