Geology & Geophysics Tribute

Kevin Charles Antony Burke (1929–2018)

Burke, a master geologist, traveled the world to inform his studies on plate tectonics, soil formation, erosion, sedimentology, and a host of other topics, including other planets.

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Kevin Charles Antony Burke
Kevin Charles Antony Burke. Credit: Kevin Burke

Kevin Charles Antony Burke, one of the greatest geologists of our time, died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 89 on 21 March 2018 at Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester, Mass. Kevin was what one might call a “compleat geologist” of the ilk of Charles Lyell, Alexander von Humboldt, Eduard Suess, or Arthur Holmes.

Kevin made immense contributions to our understanding of Earth’s behavior after the onset of plate tectonics. He based these contributions on his extensive previous experience in such diverse parts of the globe as the British Isles, various parts of Africa, South Korea, the Caribbean, and Canada. In the 1970s, he created, together with his lifelong friend John F. Dewey, an exemplary institution of research and education in the Department of Geological Sciences of the State University of New York at Albany. Many postgraduate students who obtained their degrees in that remarkable place went on to become significant researchers.

From England to Nigeria

Kevin was born on 13 November 1929 in London to a cultured family of Irish descent. He obtained his B.Sc. from University College London in 1951. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of London in 1953 on the basis of a mapping project in western Ireland. After serving as a lecturer in the University College of the Gold Coast (now the University of Ghana), he joined the British Geological Survey in 1956. As a senior geologist in the survey’s Atomic Energy Division, he worked in the east African rifts and in South Korea. That was also when he married his lifelong companion and great supporter, Angela Marion Burke (neé Phipps).

Kevin was the head of the Geology Department at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, between 1961 and 1965, followed by a position as the head of the Geology Department in the University of Ibadan in Nigeria from 1965 to 1972. In Nigeria, he initiated the Benue Valley project, which had far-reaching implications for our later understanding of continental breakup.

It was also then, in 1967, that he became aware of the great power of the then new theory of plate tectonics for assisting our understanding of the behavior and history of our planet. Despite the social unrest in Nigeria, caused by the Biafran War (1967–1970), he not only completed the Benue Valley project with his colleagues, but he also found time for a host of other studies: the formation of tropical soils (he showed the dominant role of earthworms in their formation), catastrophic erosion events in a tropical climate, and new sedimentological methods (a quick way to determine the sphericity of pebbles)—and he published a Bouguer map of gravity anomalies in Nigeria.

Plate Tectonics and Precambrian Geology

The need for better schools for their three children, Nicholas, Matthew, and Jane, forced the Burke family to relocate to Erindale College of the University of Toronto in 1972, where J. Tuzo Wilson was principal. It was there that Kevin began to explore the implications of plate tectonics in geology, starting with what he called “hot spots.” He showed how these hot spots led to continental breakup in Africa. Further, he showed that the hot spots moved about, albeit much more slowly than the plates themselves.

This time was also when his old friend John F. Dewey had moved to Albany, and Kevin was called there as department head. Already, John and Kevin had collaborated in Toronto on the origin of rifts, continental dispersion, and the effects of continental collision in creating vast areas of basement reactivation leading to continental differentiation.

It was also in Canada that Kevin rekindled his interest in Precambrian geology that had started in the Gold Coast. His experience in mapping Precambrian and Phanerozoic terrains showed him that greenstone belts were more deformed than previously believed and that they had no unconformity under them. Thus, Kevin believed that greenstone belts did not form over continents (and he was later proven right). He thought that the greenstone belts were simply remnants of Archaean and early Proterozoic oceans (i.e., suture zones).

After Kevin moved to Albany, he collaborated with Dewey and Bill Kidd on studying the Archaean eon. They showed that the Archaean most likely had a plate tectonic regime, but with smaller and faster-moving plates caused by higher heat loss of the planet. They obtained money from NASA, enabling a departmental project to map the rifts and sutures of the world, showing the pertinence of what Kevin and John had earlier called the Wilson cycle.

Kevin was always keen to point out that plate tectonics was introduced by John Tuzo Wilson’s seminal 1965 paper on transform faults. He also pointed out that Wilson had quickly recognized the profound implications of ocean opening and closing cycles in Earth’s history. Dewey wrote an important paper in 1975 showing the great uncertainties plate motions introduced into geological reconstructions, and Kevin never tired of pointing this out to people engaged in historical geology.

The Houston Years

In 1980, Dewey returned to England, and Kevin moved to Houston to become deputy (1982–1983), and then director, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. From 1983 onward, he served as professor of geology at the University of Houston. It was in Houston that his interest spread to other planetary bodies, emphasizing the importance of comparative geology.

After leaving the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Kevin became a full-time professor at the University of Houston. Since 2004, he had been dividing his year between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (as a Crosby Scholar) and Houston.

In the latter half of the first decade of the new century, Kevin pointed out that the edges of two permanent large, low shear-wave velocity provinces at the core-mantle boundary, which he named Tuzo and Jason, respectively, were the sources of the major mantle plumes. At the same time, he showed with his colleagues in South Africa that deformed alkalic (sodium- or potassium-rich) rocks and carbonatites (carbonate-rich igneous rocks) were a good guide in mapping former sutures, even where they are otherwise cryptic.

Insight, Wisdom, and Friendship

Kevin received many honors on both sides of the Atlantic. Among these are the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America and the Arthur Holmes Medal of the European Geosciences Union.

No one expressed Kevin’s role in the scientific community better than his longtime friend Sean Solomon: “Kevin was a source of seemingly limitless insight, experience, and wisdom, and a good friend.”

—A. M. Celâl Şengör (email: [email protected]), Geology Department, Faculty of Mines, Istanbul Technical University, and Eurasia Institute of Earth Sciences, Ayazağa, Istanbul, Turkey

Citation: Şengör, A. M. C. (2018), Kevin Charles Antony Burke (1929–2018), Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO103853. Published on 13 August 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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