Local Identities

Seeing through the ground

We meet a lot of interesting people during our lives, but I would have to say that my geophysicist friend, Dr Richard Yelf, has one of the most fascinating lives I’ve come across. Ric (as he prefers to be known), has done more and achieved more than most of us could dream of in one lifetime. His life story reads like the most amazing script. I spent time with Ric recently at his home in Coramba near Coffs Harbour, as he recounted his life story thus
far. Ric spends most of his time travelling to unusual and exotic destinations around the globe in his capacity as founder and managing director of Georadar Research Pty Ltd.

He maps the earth’s surface using ground penetrating radar (GPR), which he co-invented. GPR is a geophysical method used to image objects or layers in the ground. GPR technology evolved in the 1970s and Ric’s main contribution to this new science was to develop more than 65 practical applications of the method. These applications include civil engineering, geology, mining, archaeology, forensics, agriculture, groundwater, medical imaging, etc. He was initially raised on a farm in Zambia, Africa. However, his father could see the inevitable conclusion to the violence, instability and unrest that was sweeping Africa, and decided to relocate his family to Fiji, where his dad worked for the British government
in the agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries. Ric described his childhood as ‘growing up barefoot in a tropical paradise’, on an international agricultural research farm called Koronivea, before they moved to Suva.

As a young child in the 1950s, he recalls this father cut down balsa trees from the forest and made surfboards. They were probably the first family to surf in the South Pacific. During his early years he attended school in Suva,
before completing high school at a boarding school in the United Kingdom. He spent a gap year in the Arabian Gulf working on the ‘Green Desert’ project in Abu Dhabi, growing hydroponic vegetables. During this time he lived
with the desert Bedouin and sailed on pearl fishing dhows, before returning to the UK to study for a Bachelor of Science in engineering, geology and geophysics at Liverpool University, for which he received honors. Whilst at university, to help pay for his tuition, he ran the student bar and organised student entertainment – which included gigs from many of the famous bands of the 1970s, such as Pink Floyd.

He then spent a year working as an exploration geologist on oil rigs, recording all the geological and drilling information in the wild North Sea and the deserts of Iran, before returning to London to study for his Master of Science in hydrogeology at University College of London in 1978.
From there, he went on to work as a consultant engineer with Steffan, Robertson & Kirsten (SRK) in Johannesburg for three years, got married to Cristina (a lovely young doctor whom he’d met at university).
He then moved to Singapore in 1982, as Southeast Asian manager of OYO Corporation, Japan’s largest geo-engineering company.
Ric said that during his time in Johannesburg, the mining companies were extracting the gold out of the rock using cyanide.
“The waste rock was then dumped in big spoil piles outside of Johannesburg, where it leached into the ground water, dangerously contaminating it,” he said.
“They needed a method that could map the spread of pollution in the ground, but there were no geophysical methods that could do it – it didn’t exist.
“Three months later I was in Japan in a hot thermal bath house and I was describing this problem to some Japanese businessmen. There was this huge sumo-wrestler looking guy across the tub from me, who thought about what I had said and replied with ‘Aaaah Soou’. “Then he said these amazing words, ‘Radaaaar – Maaagic’.
“He had been working on radar systems for Koden Marine radar in Japan. “We started doing some prototyping and two years later we had a working product – a primitive radar system.
“Nineteen (radar) generations later we now have very high resolution systems that take remarkably good pictures in the ground.
“I introduced ground penetrating radar to Australia through a series of workshops in 1984 and in 1985 I returned permanently to Australia, initially to do a Ph.D. at the University of New England.
“This was followed by a national research fellowship.
“I did three years of applied research and during that time I built my company Georadar Research Pty Ltd.
“There are currently 18 companies around the globe that make ground penetrating radars and I work with several of the biggest companies in the world.”
Over the last two years Ric has been using GPR to survey the route of 2,000 km of gas pipelines in south-west Queensland, to create a map of the ground conditions so that the contractors know which type of machine to use to lay the gas pipelines.
In 2009, Ric won on O.C.E. Award from the Australian Government (nominated by CSIRO) to develop low frequency antennas for penetrating up to 50 metres into the ground.
Recently he has also been working at Weipa Mine in northern QLD mapping the bauxite (aluminium ore).
The GPR data is then converted into a digital terrain model – a 3D map like Google Earth – which shows the thickness of the bauxite and where the ore has been missed by mining. This information is loaded into the GPS systems of the mining machines to assist the operators in extracting the ore.
Ric has worked in ground radar for around 40 years, and over the years and has had many interesting encounters:
He’s worked with Sir David Attenborough mapping termite nests in the Kimberly for the BBC’s Life on Earth series. Ric had done 12 years of GPR exploration work in the Kimberly region for the Argyle diamond mine (where pink diamonds are mined). With GPR in the Kimberly he had seen the subsurface extent of countless termite burrows, becoming an authority in this area. “With termites, we normally only see the ‘pinnacles’ above the ground, but like icebergs, this is only a small part of their nest. What is below the ground is much bigger and extends down to the water table.” One of his favourite memories is seeing Sir David crawling into an excavated termite mound that had been mapped with GPR.
Ric has been involved with four expeditions to Antarctica to map polar ice thickness. “We use low frequency GPR to map the thickness of the ice sheets, which can be 3.5 km thick. The data is used to pick the best places to drill ice cores for analysis for input to climate models. We used to get up to 36,000 years of climate history – but now we have half a million years of very detailed climate history.” The ice cores are analysed for 46 parameters of climate (such as temperature, carbon dioxide and methane levels) and have been an important part of the evidence for climate change.
He located a 6,500-year-old woolly mammoth in the permafrost of Siberia. The red meat from the spinal area was used for DNA analysis.
He has worked with NASA for the design of GPR sensors for the Mars rovers.
Ric has conducted the world’s first detailed GPR survey of a concrete building on the shells of the Sydney Opera House. Since then he has conducted numerous civil engineering inspections of buildings, roads, bridges, major tunnels and railways. In 2004 he received the inaugural ‘Brite Award’ for innovation in the Australian construction industry, regarding the development and practical application of high-resolution GPR inspection methods for examining concrete structures in civil engineering.

He has worked on numerous bicentennial heritage and archaeological sites in Australia, including mapping unmarked Aboriginal graves. He mapped the grave of Windradyne, an Aboriginal warrior leader of the Wiradjuri Nation, at Brucedale Station near Bathurst, NSW.
On Norfolk Island he mapped the convict cemetery and the post-1856 cemetery of the Pitcairn islanders (who are the descendants of the Bounty mutineers).
He was rather surprised to find the graves of nine of his ancestors in the post-1857 cemetery.
In an excerpt from the Norfolk Island Museum Facebook page in January 2014, the author wrote: “So exciting to see the action on the weekend at ‘Murderers Mound’, just outside the cemetery fence.
Richard Yelf was using his radar equipment to identify the remains of at least 12 men hung for their part in one of Norfolk’s more infamous riots from 1846 called ‘the Cooking Pot Riot’.
The men were purposely buried in un-consecrated ground, in a mass grave. Richard’s work has confirmed the presence of burials in the mound.”
Ric has performed GPR surveys at many mine sites in Australia and overseas. Clients include major international companies like Rio Tinto and BHP, but also many smaller family-owned businesses.
He has introduced GPR to many countries around the world via workshops and training classes. Recently he introduced GPR to Sheikh Salman Althani, who is a keen astronomer, in Qatar -– and who is accredited with finding the replacement for the downgraded ‘planet’ Pluto.
Some of his projects closer to home have included Yamba skate park, Wherrett Park Sports Centre and the Yamba swimming pool.
The Yamba skate park was partially built by volunteers and Ric was hired by the Clarence Valley Council to assess the sub-surface structure of the existing park before it could be re-developed.
He was also hired to map Grafton public swimming pool to find out why it was leaking and from where.
The survey conducted on the public swimming pool at Yamba found it to be structurally sound with only minor areas of visible rusting of the steel reinforcing.
He mapped the walls of the Wherrett Park sports centre after cracks began to appear in the walls.
Ric has conducted 11 major GPR projects on the Pacific Highway over the last 12 years.
He is currently auditing the concrete pavement of the new Pacific Highway being constructed by Lend Lease between Nambucca and Urunga.
Using the radar data, it has been possible to make continuous improvements to the concrete pouring machines, with the result that the current pavement is of high quality. This ensures the road will last for a long time.
He attributes his enthusiasm to a strong Christian faith. He also says he is curious about “all of the Universe”. His main scientific interest is looking for a possible mechanism whereby life might be transported in some very primitive form around the universe.
In the 1970s he was involved with Dr Tom Gaskell, chief geophysicist of BP Oil and head of the Glomar Challenger Project, to drill some very deep core holes into the earth’s crust.
From this work very primitive organisms (simpler than bacteria) were discovered living in the rock under extreme conditions.
They were named ‘Archaea’ – meaning very old – and are now considered to be the origin of all life on earth. Ric’s thesis is that possibly they arrived on earth via ice comets about three or four billion years ago.
In 1987, he was in Delft, Holland talking with Dutch scientists about building a space probe that would intercept and examine an incoming ice comet. One of those engineers went on to become head of the European Space Agency (ESA).
In March 2004, the Rosetta space craft was launched by ESA, with its mission to rendezvous with the comet 67-P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On November 12, 2014, a landing probe, ‘Philae’, was deployed onto the comet’s surface.
“Its mission was to examine the comet and to look for possible hydrocarbons – and hence answer important questions about the origins of life,” Ric said.
Ric now has a goal to send a robotic GPR system to Europa – the moon of Jupiter – which is believed to have over a kilometre of frozen crust. It is possible that the conditions below the frozen crust might support primitive life forms.
With 600 projects under his belt, Ric has travelled to more than 140 countries over the past 40 years.
So, where to from here?
Ric is hoping that his radar technology will become a future tool which can be used in medical imaging and combined with MRI; “It will tell you about the complex chemistry of body organs,” he said.