Williams, Harold (earth scientist)

(1934- ) Canadian Regional Tectonics

Harold Williams is one of the premier field mappers in the history of geology. His career overlapped the plate tectonic revolution and he keenly watched its development. After the basic paradigm had been established for the current plate configuration and interactions, the next group of geologists began applying those processes to observations of ancient rocks. Harold Williams was prominent in the group that was attempting to reconstruct the Appalachians. He interpreted and reinterpreted his vast geologic mapping in this context and established himself as the foremost expert on the tectonics of Newfoundland and indeed, the entire Canadian Appalachians. He then performed the unimaginable at the time. He produced a tectonic map of the entire Appalachian Orogen both in Canada and the United States entitled Tectonic-Lithofacies Map of the Appalachian Orogen. This project involved the compilation of existing maps and reinterpretation of them into a tectonic context, which was a feat in itself. Because he was respected and well liked, he was able to obtain the assistance of numerous other regional geologists orogen wide. Considering the territorial nature of regional geologists, this feat borders on the miraculous. The result was an internally consistent map with the general consent of the geologic community both Canadian and American. Within one or two years of publication, this map was hanging on the wall in most geology departments throughout the Appalachians as well as many other departments throughout the United States, Canada, and western Europe. He later produced geophysical maps that cover the same area (Magnetic Anomaly Map of the Appalachian Orogen and Bouguer Gravity Anomaly Map of the Appalachian Orogen).

The main reason that Williams became such a leader in regional tectonics is the rich tectonic geology of Newfoundland. It is doubtful that there is another area in the entire Appalachian-Caledonian chain with more or better preserved plate tectonic elements. They record several plate collision events. Beautiful subduction zone complexes are marked by the Dunnage, Cold Spring, Teakettle, and Carmanville Melanges. There are well-preserved fragments of ancient oceanic crust in the Bay of Islands ophiolite complex and Fleur de Lys Supergroup. There are large sheets of rock that were slid in atop existing rock during plate collisions including the Humber Arm Allochthon, Hare Bay Allochthon, and Coney Head Complex.

Harold Williams (third from left in open jacket), flanked by John Dewey (left) and James Skehan, S.J. (right), on a field conference in 1994

Harold Williams (third from left in open jacket), flanked by John Dewey (left) and James Skehan, S.J. (right), on a field conference in 1994

There is even a back-arc-basin complex (Noggin Cove Formation) and several plate suture zones. These are just of few of the many elements that Williams has studied. Papers on this work include “Acadian Orogeny in Newfoundland” and “Appalachian Suspect Terranes,” among many others.

Harold (Hank) Williams was born on March 14, 1934, in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. He attended Memorial University of Newfoundland and earned both a diploma in engineering and a bachelor of science degree in geology in 1956. He earned a master of science degree in geology in 1958 on a Dominion Command scholarship. Williams earned a Ph.D. from University of Toronto, Canada, in 1961. He joined the faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland that year and remained there for the rest of his career. In 1984, he was named university research professor, one of the first two at Memorial University. He was also the  Murray professor from 1990 to 1995. Williams retired to professor emeritus in 1997. Harold Williams is an avid folk musician and is known for his gregarious nature.

Harold Williams has had a very productive career. He is an author of numerous articles in international journals and professional volumes and he is an editor of six professional volumes. He is also an author of some 15 maps. Several of these are among the most-cited works on regional geology ever (highest number of citations of any Canadian geologist in 1984). Many of these works set new benchmarks in the understanding of the Appalachian orogen. For his research contributions to geology, Williams has received numerous honors and awards. From the Geological Association of Canada, he received both the Past President’s Medal (1976) and the

Logan Medal (1988), as well as being named a Distinguished Fellow in 1996. He was the first recipient of the Douglas Medal from the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists in 1981. He received the Miller Medal from the Royal Society of Canada in 1987. From Memorial University, he received the Governor General’s Medal (1956), the Dominion Command Scholarship (1956 and 1957), and the Issak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship (1976 to 1979), in addition to those already listed. He was also named the James Chair Professor at Saint Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1989. Williams also performed significant service to the profession to the Geological Association of Canada where he served as president, in addition to numerous committees, and to the Geological Society of America, where he was an associate editor for the Geological Society of America Bulletin, among others.

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