National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Raymond Durrheim

For the application of his expertise in geophysics and seismology to learn how the Earth works, where to find ore bodies and energy resources, to make mining safer, and how to mitigate the risks of earthquakes.

The winner of the 2020/2021 Lifetime Awards is Prof Raymond Durrheim, Chair of the Department of Science and Innovation/National Research Foundation South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) in Exploration, Earthquake and Mining Seismology, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand. 

He received the Award for the application of his expertise in geophysics and seismology to learn how the Earth works, where to find ore bodies and energy resources, to make mining safer, and how to mitigate the risks of earthquakes.

Earth science challenges tackled head-on

Africa’s rich mining history and community, its stark landscapes, remarkable geology and its unique elevations and geological considerations make it the ideal setting to investigate critical scientific questions. And this is precisely what Professor Raymond Durrheim, the South African Research Chair in Exploration, Earthquake and Mining Seismology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), set out to do, spending more than 40 years in academia, industry and contract R&D tackling earth science problems with passion.

It is this passion, and his commitment to this field of study, that has seen him walk away with the prestigious NSTF-South32 Lifetime Award, an award that recognises an outstanding contribution over a lifetime by an individual for 15 years or more.

Over his 40-year career, Durrheim has looked at challenges that span curiosity-driven research in geodynamics and practical applications to mineral exploration, mining and geohazard mitigation; and he has examined ethical issues around the sustainable extraction of resources — a body of work that really does underpin the lifeblood of South Africa and Africa. It also captures his passion for this work and what it could mean for the country.

“Back in school I always enjoyed the sciences, arts and the outdoors, but I couldn’t afford to go to university and needed a bursary, so I opted for science and geology,” he explains, when asked how he set foot on this geological path. “One thing led to another, and because I didn’t really have a long-term plan, I initially started working for a mining company. I enjoyed parts of the job; I was travelling all over the world and seeing places that I don’t think I really appreciated at the time, but I missed people. I was sitting around the fire with a depressed driller and an alcoholic geologist and I missed my friends and family.”

On the cusp of switching his entire career to psychology and changing the course of history, Durrheim was contacted by his previous head of department and offered a job — teaching for a year. This is where his passion for his work and people came together to create the perfect storm.

“I found campus wonderful, with so much variety, and I still had the option to go out into the field if I wanted to. But now I could choose to go into the field in summer, not winter, and had more control over my life,” he adds. “I found it incredibly interesting, but after about 10 years I moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and got involved in research related to mine safety.”

It was a field that proved critical. On this continent, mineral resources are the cornerstone of economies but they will only continue to generate employment and financial value if new ore bodies and energy resources are found. The development of deep mining technology and improved mine safety are essential in our country, which has the deepest mines in the world. At the CSIR, Durrheim conducted research into the causes and control of mining-induced seismicity, and led a task team that conducted forensic investigations into rockbursts. From 1998-2002, the team also managed the DeepMine and FutureMine programmes that developed technology to mine at ultra-depth.

“Because our mines are so deep, we have a significant death toll due to rock bursting and rockfall, which made my research socially relevant,” says Durrheim. “I was going into the heart of the earth with my geophysics and I really enjoyed the drama of nature — the volcanoes, the ability to go into the heart of an earthquake and see the fractured earth.”


Part of Durrheim’s work with the team at the CSIR included investigating the risks posed by large seismic events in gold mining regions and investigating the physics of earthquakes. The reality is that while large earthquakes are rare in South Africa, there remains a risk of the recurrence of the M6 1809 Cape Town earthquake – which could become one of the greatest disasters faced by the country. Durrheim assessed the risks that these earthquakes pose to nuclear power stations, the electricity grid, and gas pipeline networks, as well as those who live close to the East African Rift, where earthquakes occur regularly.

“My work has evolved and works at the interface between science and society, doing the things that I believe are relevant, helpful and important,” says Durrheim. “We are world class when it comes to mining in this country, and we really are considered a centre of excellence. People come from all over the world to work here, as they can’t do this overseas. In our rockburst research, we work with people from as far afield as Japan — our underground mines are underground laboratories.”

His work has given Durrheim the opportunity to work with some of the best rock engineers in the world, and alongside students whose development and growth inspire him. He says: “I enjoy working with students and watching them develop. As a research chair I focus on people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are remarkable.”

Over the past 40 years, Durrheim has contributed significantly to the field. The research and development processes employed by Durrheim have evolved due to huge advances in sensor technology and computing power, making it possible to address increasingly complex research questions. He has contributed to incremental improvements in research techniques and been involved in several notable research programmes.

In the 1980s, Durrheim and his students used reflection seismics to probe the crust across the Limpopo Belt, Wits Basin and Cape Fold Belt profiles. In addition, AfricaArray was co-directed by Durrheim from 2005 to present day, and its backbone network comprises 50 stations in 20 countries, with another 100 stations in temporary arrays. Durrheim also collaborated on the pioneering of digital processing and semi-automatic interpretation of gravity and magnetic data in South Africa, and a research facility was established at Wits in 1986. The facility was revived in 2007 by Durrheim after his South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) appointment and has subsequently undergone significant growth.

“One of my most satisfying achievements is seeing that the group I took over when I was appointed to the research chair 15 years ago go from nearly no activity in terms of seismological research to a group of 40 post-docs, associates, honorary lecturers and PhD and Master’s candidates,” he says. “I have a brilliant successor who got his PhD in 2013; he is an extraordinary researcher and really good with people — Dr Musa Manzi. It is, at this point in my life, amazing to see how this has grown and flourished and to see young and enthusiastic people grow and go forward.”

In the arena of deep mining and mine safety and health, Durrheim collaborated in the Japan-South Africa project Observational Studies in South African Mines to Mitigate Seismic Risks and installed an exceptionally sensitive system at the Cooke #4 shaft. He also worked with CSIR colleagues to pioneer the measurement of site effects that amplified ground motions on tunnel sidewalls and slopes; and in 2018 he was invited to participate in the Economics and Infrastructure Expert Panel of the Covid-19 Country Report. The latter was an initiative to assess the effectiveness of government interventions within the sector.

“South Africa is a country where earth resources are essential for modern society and mining is the river of our economy in terms of wealth creation, but it has a negative impact on the environment and health and safety,” says Durrheim. “I want my work to help get the best out of people and ensure we get the most benefit with the least harm. We have huge disparities in our country, and massive unemployment with social challenges, and so we need to do what we can to keep the economy going.”

Durrheim also leads a community of practice in oil and gas to support the transition away from coal-burning power stations towards renewables. He has made significant discoveries and his role is to develop high-level skills in this area, particularly in previously disadvantaged universities.

“Going forward, I want to work less and focus on the things that bring me joy and have an impact,” he concludes. “We are mentoring the next generation of academics and building a future that’s more diverse and inclusive. I want to open more doors for people, and help them build their networks and become top class academics and leaders.” — Tamsin Oxford

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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