Prof. James Irving
Think of Prof. James Irving as an “Earth doctor” using tools to check the workings of our planetary body. Here he’s pictured in Norway during a hiking trip last summer. Photo by Melita Irving

Imagine working at a university where you can take a train for just 20 minutes and be in the Alps or where you can leave your office and jump into Lake Geneva for a swim.

That’s what life was like for engineering professor James Irving during the three years he spent in Switzerland doing post-doctoral work at the University of Lausanne.

It sounds like the perfect spot for Irving, who loves the outdoors and spends as much time as he can hiking, backpacking and camping.

But although he loved the mountains, Irving says he’s happy to be back closer to family and at U of G. He grew up in Waterloo and did his undergraduate degree in earth sciences at the University of Waterloo. Because of the work of one of his professors there, environmental geophysicist John Greenhouse, he decided to continue with studies in geophysics.

“In the beginning, applied geophysical techniques were used primarily for oil and mineral exploration,” says Irving. “They were also used by scientists to understand the deep structure of the Earth and to map the thickness of glaciers, for example, but for the most part, applications were initially focused on finding natural resources.”

Over the past 30 years or so, however, geophysical methods have gained increasing popularity for environmental and engineering applications, he says.

“Greenhouse was one of the pioneering people in that area, trying to use these methods to help solve environmental problems. And that’s what interested me.”

Following that interest led Irving to Vancouver, where he earned a master’s degree in geophysics at the University of British Columbia, and then on to California to complete a PhD at Stanford University. From there, he headed to Switzerland.

“I’m really glad I had the chance to live in all of those places,” says Irving, who joined U of G in January, “but it’s nice to get back closer to family again, too.”

He says he’s also happy to be at a university where a focus on environmental issues is valued.

“I’m a hydrogeophysicist,” he says. “That means I apply geophysical methods to hydrological problems. These are techniques that involve setting up sources and receivers of energy along the Earth’s surface, and perhaps in boreholes, and then using the measurements to infer detailed information about the Earth’s internal properties that is otherwise very difficult to obtain. Examples of these techniques are ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity and seismic methods.”

The methods are analogous to medical imaging techniques such as ultrasounds and CAT scans used to reveal the internal structure of the human body, he adds.

“By learning more about the structure of the Earth just below the surface, we can make better predictions about how groundwater is going to flow and where environmental contaminants are likely to end up if they get into the water. We can also better predict how groundwater supplies will respond to increased human demand and the effects of climate change, and we can therefore better understand how to best manage this important resource.”

But like an ultrasound picture, the images gained from geophysical techniques are snapshots of a moment in time. Irving is taking things a step further: his research involves the use of repeated geophysical measurements over time to learn about hydrological properties and processes.

“By tracking hydrological processes over time, we can build better hydrological models and further understand how exactly groundwater flow and contaminant transport occur in a region. When we put it all together, it’s almost like having a movie, often in 3D, where you can see how geophysical properties change as the hydrological processes occur.”

His current work involves trying to define the levels of uncertainty associated with predictions made using geophysical data.

“For example, if you’re telling someone that contaminants released at a certain time will travel to a particular water well, you can’t say exactly when the contaminants will get there. You have to say it’s between time A and time B. I want to quantify that degree of uncertainty.”

Meanwhile, Irving still has PhD students in Switzerland whom he’s supervising, so he plans to head back there this summer. His wife, Melita, who’s also from Waterloo, is completing her own post-doc in Switzerland and will move back to Canada with him when he returns.

Although another summer in Switzerland’s mountains is definitely something Irving looks forward to — “I’ve been living around mountains for the last 10 years or so” — he’s also looking forward to the outdoor opportunities available in Ontario.

“I can’t wait to get back into Algonquin Park. I used to spend two or three weeks at a time there on canoe trips.”