'Father Figure' of Plate Tectonics Theory Wins Geology's Highest Award

Forty years after helping to lead a revolution in the way scientists believe the planet’s surface was shaped, a University of Houston geologist was honored with his field’s most prestigious award.

The Geological Society of America announced in May that Professor Kevin Burke won this year’s Penrose Medal, the society’s highest award, for his pioneering research in plate tectonics.

The theory that the Earth’s crust was made up of a few massive plates whose movements helped explain earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain ranges and the movement of continents was first postulated in the 1960s. It is orthodoxy now, but most geologists at the time rejected it. 

Burke was at the forefront of this paradigm shift and is considered a “father figure” of plate tectonic theory, said John Casey, chair of the UH geosciences department. Burke also was one of the first to write about how the collision of the Indian and Asian plates created the Himalayas.

Because the plates move at roughly the rate fingernails grow –4 centimeters a year – Burke’s research takes him hundreds of millions of years into the past to understand how the plates’ movements over eons have reshaped continents and formed new seas and oceans.

Ever since scientists noticed that Africa and South America seemed to fit together like a puzzle, they had debated how and why continents moved. But plate tectonics superseded previous theories, explaining continental drift and much more.

“We suddenly understood how the world works,” Burke said.

By studying plate movements, geologists like Burke can track ongoing developments – such as the widening of the Red Sea into an ocean. – that will change how the Earth looks millions of years from now.
Burke is also well-known among geologists for his work explaining the origins of hot spots such as Hawaii and Iceland. While most volcanic activity occurs along plate boundaries, hot spots are areas where narrow streams of hot mantle have created volcanic islands far from the plate margins.

Geologists from around the world are considered for the Penrose Medal, which is given for outstanding achievements in original research. Past winners have hailed from prestigious institutions like Stanford University, the University of Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley.

Another UH geologist – John Dewey – won the award in 1992.

“It is a rare honor to have two Penrose winners at one university,” said Donald Foss, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UH. “Kevin Burke is an exceptional scientist who has made significant contributions both in the field and in the classroom.”

The recognition is another sign of the ground-breaking research being done by faculty throughout the university, Foss added.

Burke will receive the medal at the society’s annual meeting in October. Joining the ranks of previous Penrose winners – distinguished geologists he has long respected – is an honor, Burke said.

“I know you’re kind of expected to say you’re overwhelmed, but it’s true,” Burke said. “People I think very highly of have won this award.”

The native of Britain earned his doctorate at the University of London and worked in universities in Africa, Canada and the Caribbean before coming to UH in 1983. In his five-decade career Burke has traveled all around the world – hammer in hand – to study old rocks. Field work is essential to geology and researchers must compare rock evidence from different continents, Burke said

At 77, Burke does not get out in the field as much as he used to, but his passion for geology is undimmed, and he still has more research and insight to contribute to the field, Casey said.