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Geologist Biography

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago covers an astonishing 1.3 million square kilometers of land, including the planet’s 5th, 8th, and 10th largest islands. It is a supremely challenging, geologically complex but rewarding landscape in which to engage in geological field studies, and for Dr. Raymond Thorsteinsson, it became the focus of his lifelong career spanning 62 years with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC).

Thorsteinsson’s legacy, the result of some 39 years of field work in the High Arctic, were maps and geological reports that covered 60% of this territory, and the foundational understanding of the Archipelago’s geology, and its structural and stratigraphic underpinnings.

Ray has been called Canada’s last living explorer, and most certainly he was the most prolific bedrock mapper Canada has ever known.

Ray was born in 1921 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan of a farming family with mixed Icelandic-Canadian and Scottish-English roots. His Icelandic grandparents had emigrated to Canada near the turn of the 20thcentury and had established a homestead near Wynward, Saskatchewan, overlooking Big Quill Lake. This is where Ray spent his childhood, and with the many chores to be done on the farm, he quickly learned to respect hard work as its own reward.

His capacity for work was to become legendary. Life on the farm also nurtured a great love for nature and the prairie sky at night, imbued him with a passion for astronomy.

In the early 1940’s Ray attended the University of Saskatchewan from whence he graduated with a BA in geology in 1944. A promising student he was quickly earmarked for graduate work. At university he also gained a reputation as a skilled amateur boxer. His quiet modest temperament belied a remarkable tenacity and toughness that was to serve him well in the arduous Arctic field endeavors that were his destiny.

Arctic Islands map with Thorsteinsson contributions

He completed an MA in paleontology at the University of Toronto and worked during the summers with Geological Survey of Canada field parties. In 1949 he commenced PhD studies at the University of Kansas under renowned stratigrapher-paleontologist R.C. Moore.

In the late 1940’s the Cold War had become a reality and concerns over the Soviet Union’s military ambitions in the Far North, precipitated a response from both Canada and the USA. Meteorological bases with airstrips were established at five sites across the High Arctic, including Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island. The GSC decided to take advantage of these new facilities to launch a systematic mapping program in what had previously been a prohibitively inaccessible part of the country.

In 1950 Ray was invited to join a 3-man field party under the leadership of Dr. Ives Fortier to conduct a reconnaissance survey of the coasts of Cornwallis and Little Cornwallis islands, by means of a freighter canoe outfitted with a 5 hp outboard. The larger island was successfully circumnavigated (~ 450 km), and became the subject of Ray’s doctoral dissertation entailing three more years of independent field studies.

In 1952 Ray joined the permanent staff of the GSC, and in 1955 received his Ph.D.

That same year saw Dr. Thorsteinsson participate in Operation Franklin, the Survey’s very ambitious helicopter-supported regional mapping program that covered the central core of the Queen Elizabeth Islands plus northernmost Somerset Island (approximately 260,000km2).

In subsequent years, logistical support and transport for Ray’s field work was accomplished by dog sled, freighter canoe, then by balloon-tired Super-Piper Cub aircraft, and eventually by Twin Otter aircraft and jet-helicopters.

For the most part, Ray’s field work was conducted feet to the ground, eyes on the rocks on foot traverses, or measuring stratigraphic sections, often covering great distances/thicknesses over difficult terrain, and often alone.

By 1960, Ray and his good friend and GSC colleague Tim Tozer had assembled sufficient structural and stratigraphic data to define for the first time the Sverdrup Basin, which extended through the northern islands of the Archipelago and which contained at least 13 km of upper Paleozoic and Mesozoic strata.

This hitherto unknown basin subsequently became the target for significant seismic acquisition and wildcat drilling in the period between 1961 and 1986, resulting in substantial discoveries of petroleum reserves (chiefly gas). It was Tozer and Thorsteinsson’s pioneer field studies that laid the foundation for that extraordinary period of exploration.

By the time of his official retirement from the Survey in 1992, when his last field season was behind him, Ray Thorsteinsson had participated in the geological mapping in whole or in part, of every major island in the Arctic Archipelago with the exception of Baffin, Bathurst and Ellef Rignes, a staggering 759,422 km2.

In the majority of cases, Ray was the lead (often the sole) author of the resulting maps. More importantly he, and the colleagues at the Survey with whom he collaborated, had synthesized the essential tectonic and stratigraphic framework for a major portion of Canada’s landmass.

Ray’s expertise went well beyond that of bedrock mapping and stratigraphy. He was also an internationally recognized authority on graptolites, fusulinids, and ostracoderm fish. Dr. Thorsteinsson continued to pursue paleo-taxonomic studies in his retirement and as emeritus research scientist was in his Survey office for long hours, generally six days a week, up until a few months before his death at age 91 in 2012. His passion for his chosen science simply refused to diminish.

Such extraordinary and diligent efforts were widely recognized and honoured. Ray received the highest awards for scientific achievement from the Geological Association of Canada, the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was awarded its Willet G. Miller Medal.

He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1989.

Geological Fieldwork:

Nunavut map thumbnail

click on map to see some of Thorsteinsson’s geological fieldwork

Geoscience Field Area → Miocene Age Astrobleme, Devon Island, Nunavut