Photo of Mitchell McMillan

Tools of the trade: Multi-million dollar software donation provides geologists with peek into the past

Maeve Doyle

In December 2018, Mitchell McMillan, a geology PhD student in the Department of Chemical & Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga, travelled more than 10,000 kilometres to gather field data. He flew from Toronto to Buenos Aires, Argentina then to the city of Salta.

In Salta, McMillan met his guide who drove him, his tools, equipment and supplies, a further 700 kilometres to his destination—the Puna. Millions of years old, the Puna is a plateau in the Andes Mountains so large that it spans multiple countries.

McMillan and his guide set up base camp. For the next few days, he travelled by foot from the camp to familiarize himself with the area. Once his eye and mind were calibrated to his surroundings, he began to gather information with a geologist’s traditional tools—a compass, a hand-held lens and a rock hammer. When he finished surveying an area, he and the guide broke camp, moved and he began again.

As he journeyed, McMillan formulated ideas to explain what he saw. When he answered each of the little puzzles that he discovered in the landscape, he captured their answers in pencil by drawing them onto a map. When he confirmed his predictions and ideas through observation, he fixed the information in ink.

At the end of three weeks when the field work was complete, the map was filled, and he felt confident in his interpretations, McMillan made the 10,000 kilometre return journey to Toronto.

Over distance and across time

A specialist in tectonic geomorphology, McMillan has travelled long distances to gather data for his research in the Andes Mountains.

Now, with a crucial donation of 10 specialized Move software licenses, which have a commercial value of £1,334,160 (~$2.3 million), he will be able to travel across time. The donor Petroleum Experts, a company predominantly based in the United Kingdom and with offices in Houston and Lafayette in the United States, develops software tools for petroleum engineering and structural geology.

McMillan who is working to reconstruct the history of the Puna says that the Andes in their current form compare to how western North America appeared in the past.

“Understanding how the Andes formed and the sequence of events that got them there has implications for anything from where you find natural resources like precious metals, or earthquake and volcanic hazards, to even climate change,” he says.

McMillan combines the data he collects in the field with data from other studies, aerial imagery and digital elevation models. He creates a 2-dimensional map of the of the Puna’s terrain. Then he slices through the map to create cross-sections and view the layers beneath the surface of the plateau.

“So, now I have a geologic map and I have cross-sections,” says McMillan “and traditionally these are the final products. But with Move, I can go a step further.”

3D models

By integrating all the data within the software application, he can create 3-dimensional models of the present-day geology and wind back time. “I can unfold the rocks and move them back to when they were flat 40- to 50-million years ago.”

Move is a software application capable of combining many different data types, including geologic maps and cross-sections, to create 3-dimensional models. Geoscientists use the software to test and validate their models.

“We create a model for how the rocks are deformed right now,” says Professor Lindsay Schoenbohm, McMillan’s research supervisor. Stretching the computer models of the rocks back into their original position might reveal unrealistic geometries that conflict with how rocks actually behave. Researchers can then return to the original data they collected and figure out a model that does work.

In addition to using Move for research, Schoenbohm will use the donated licenses to teach Advanced Structural Geology to fourth-year students. Undergraduates will be trained in the software, which will help them to develop thinking skills vital to creating realistic models for how rocks deform.

“Without the donation of these licenses, certainly I wouldn’t have been able to offer the teaching module and our work in Argentina just would have been less complete,” she says.

Kent Moore, UofT Mississauga Vice-Principal, Research is grateful for this support. “In-kind donations from industry partners such as Petroleum Experts are critical to the advancement of academic research and the development and training of graduate students at the University of Toronto.”

As for McMillen, in spring 2020 the researcher will once more travel to the Puna to collect field data, but this time he will also have Move software in his geologist’s toolkit.