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Other geophysicists were looking for oil and gas, Rosemary Knight started searching for water

The Stanford professor, who just won one of geophysics' biggest awards, discusses California’s water crisis, a ‘nature first’ agenda and life on Bowen Island
Rosemary Knight
Rosemary Knight is the first woman and first hydrogeophysicist to be awarded the Society of Exploration Geophysicists’ highest honour, the Maurice Ewing Medal. Knight is drawn to problem solving through science. “Think of it – the thrill of discovering how things work at a very fundamental scale, but even the idea that you can take that understanding and apply it and do good – address societal problems and address environmental problems. It’s like who wouldn’t want to do this with their life.”

In her first day at Queen’s University, Rosemary Knight was asked what she wanted to do. 

“I want to write down the equation that describes the Earth,” said the young woman, passionate about math, physics, quantifying reality. 

“Look outside, look at everything that’s going on out there,” the Stanford professor told me decades later. “The power of math and physics to describe that, I just find intoxicating.”

Recently, the Bowen Islander received the Society of Exploration Geophysicists’ highest award – the Maurice Ewing Medal. She’s the first woman to do so in the award’s 43-year history, the second Canadian, and the first scientist in the specialized field of hydrogeophysics. (A term Knight coined while finishing her PhD in 1985).


Historically, geophysics has focused on oil, gas and mineral exploration. The discipline uses geophysical mapping methods to see hundreds of metres, or even kilometres, below the ground surface, rather than drilling wells. Knight uses the analogy of a doctor using medical imaging to see inside the human body instead of exploratory surgery.  

Thirty years ago, Knight trained the technology on a different search: water.

While some geophysical methods had been developed at that point, no one had done the research necessary to say how they could be applied to water. So for the first 15 years of her academic career, Knight worked with students and colleagues to create the knowledge base, the scientific literature. 

Once she’d established that the geophysical methods worked for water, Knight needed to convince water agencies to use them. (Translating knowledge to action, problem solving, is another one of Knight’s passions.)

In 2008, she started Stanford’s Centre for Groundwater Evaluation and Management, which applies the state-of-the-art science to real-world problems. Today, Knight and her crew work with 16 different water agencies, testing out applications of various geophysical methods. For the past five years, Knight’s worked on mapping groundwater systems in California so that decision makers can be predictive and consider management actions to sustain quantity and quality of groundwater. As of a few months ago, the State of California committed $12 million to acquiring geophysical data – using helicopter deployed electromagnetic methods to image groundwater systems hundreds of feet underfoot. 

“It’s just thrilling, this honour,” said Knight. “It’s really meaningful to me because it’s truly recognition of a field that I’ve been really instrumental in advancing.

“That is using these imaging methods to better understand, to better manage, better protect our groundwater resources.”

Geophysical methods vary; some use sound waves, some use electrical currents, others use electromagnetic energy. Knight described a method that’s exactly like a hospital MRI but instead of a powerful magnet in the MRI cylinder, they use the Earth’s magnetic field, and have a 100-metre diameter loop on the Earth’s surface to send a radio frequency pulse below the ground. “All of those little nuclear spins and the hydrogen atoms in the water get perturbed and then send a signal back,” she said. “So there you are on the ground surface. And what you’re picking up is the nuclear spin from the hydrogen atom that’s in the water molecule, that’s in the pore of your rock.”


Knight and her husband – Bob Turner – moved to Bowen Island in 1989. Knight was a faculty member at UBC but in 2000, she got a call from Stanford, where she’d done her PhD. They wanted to hire her as a geophysics professor. But, Bob had just been elected to Bowen Island’s first municipal council. 

“I realized, if we both moved to California at that point, I wouldn’t have a friend left on Bowen Island,” recalled Knight. There were two years left in Turner’s council term, so she said she’d commute for two years and then they’d relocate. “After commuting for two years, I realized I couldn’t leave Bowen.” 

But she couldn’t leave Stanford either. “There’s a generosity of spirit that pervades the place. There is a commitment to do more than generate knowledge,” she said. “It was founded by Jane Stanford. And her whole vision was a purposeful university, a university where you educate students, you empower students, to use their knowledge for the betterment of humankind to address critical societal issues.

“It’s a very inspiring place to teach.”

So, in the summer months and every other weekend, Knight’s on Bowen, the rest of the time, Stanford. Though with virtual classes, closed borders and general disruption of COVID-19, Knight’s spent the last year and a half on Bowen but Zooming all over the place. “One week I gave a talk in Mexico on Monday, I was at a conference in Denver on Tuesday, I was teaching my Stanford class, Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” she said. “It’s been quite an amazing year.”


In California, Knight works with people who scientifically and politically have a nature-first agenda. “The idea that when you put in place, anytime, any type of regulatory framework…if you haven’t figured out how this is going to benefit nature, it ultimately isn’t going to benefit people,” she said. “If you work with nature and return to this system that was there before we started controlling it and overdeveloping it, there’s benefits. Not just for nature, but for people too.”

“The same could be done on Bowen,” she suggested: looking at carrying capacity, what islanders need to do to ensure sustainable water use and ensuring the way we’re building is sustainable. 

In California, Knight is involved in understanding where groundwater gets recharged. “Where does the rainwater actually get below the ground surface and start percolating down and raising the water levels so that when we pump we get water? 

“I’ve started talking with people about the whole idea of zoning for recharge,” she said. “So when you think of your land use, when you pass land use bylaws, you really think carefully about the impact of everything you’re doing on natural systems. And you look at land very differently.
“You say, what is the fundamental natural function of this piece of land? And when we think about development, and when we think about development variance permits, we think about how is that going to impact the natural functioning of this piece of land? And what does that mean, at the larger scale to the groundwater system, to the forest to our air?

“You start with this fundamental understanding of how Earth works, how nature works, and then figure out how to pile the people on top of that.”

But, for Knight, the best part of her industry is the people. “My graduate students, my postdocs. I love working in a team,” she said. “That’s a big part of the type of geophysics. I do too.

“You’re not going to do it on your own. You couldn’t possibly do it on your own. 

“You need a wide range of expertise, a wide range of perspectives, a wide range of skill sets,” she said. “I really love pulling together people with diverse backgrounds, diverse skill sets, to solve problems to figure things out. And that’s a huge part of what you get to do in hydrogeophysics.”