Editor’s note: Each year, Raleigh Metro Magazine’s “Who’s Who” list recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the quality of life from the Triangle to the Coast. The recently published list for 2007 “once again reflects who we are and why we are indeed a world class region,” says Bernie Reeves, the magazine’s editor and publisher. Several of the profiles were written by Rick Smith, a senior writer for Metro and editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire. The profiles written by Smith are reprinted with the permission of Metro.

RALEIGH George Howard is not a mystery writer, but he has spent years investigating one of the biggest riddles in North Carolina and portions of the eastern seaboard.

What on earth — or from heaven — created the landscape features called Carolina Bays?

These wetland depressions — some small and some as big as lakes, often filled with Bay trees (thus the name) — were not created by erosion.

To Howard, a Raleigh businessman focused on land and wetland mitigation projects, the evidence says a comet hit Earth near Lake Michigan that created the more than 500,000 “bays” thousands of years ago.

“If we are proven correct, they are indeed the footprints of Lucifer,” Howard said.

“There certainly was a tremendous cataclysm. It didn’t leave a crater, but it was certainly horrific. What we suggest — and none of this is proven yet — is that the bays could be the result of a shockwave across the landscape, leaving dimples across the ground like a golf ball.”

Howard is part of a research team digging through a variety of sites to figure out what triggered the deaths of civilizations — and perhaps even an ice age — thousands of years ago.

Call him crazy. And some have. Not as often now, however. His findings and those of his fellow researchers were published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.

“The National Academy of Sciences is made up of the top scientists — they are elected by their peers, and this is their journal,” Howard said proudly. “It’s the journal of the journals.”

Their research also was featured in a National Geographic television special.

Among the leaders in the program were Dr. Richard Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Al Goodyear, an archaeologist from the University of South Carolina, and Allen West, a geophysicist from Arizona.

While Howard didn’t appear on camera in the TV show, he took great pride in the credibility given to the comet research, entitled in part: “Evidence for an extraterrestrial impact 12,900 years ago…”

“It does prove that we ain’t crazy,” Howard said with pride, “and this is worth serious consideration and open-minded investigation.”

Other research has shown that civilizations disappeared, and animals — such as the wooly mammoth — were flash frozen: One of Howard’s prized possessions is a so-called “impact tusk” that was removed from a preserved mammoth carcass.

The research is based on years of digging and other work, augmented in part by recent technology, such as satellite photographs. Howard estimates that he and David Kimbell of Fayetteville, who has worked with him on the project, have dug more than a ton of earth and sand from Carolina Bays and shipped it to Arizona and California for analysis.

“They are incredibly consistent all the way from Delaware to Florida,” Howard said of the dimples, citing images from Google Earth. “There is very little deviance from that pattern. That suggests they happened at the same time.”

Howard said he considers himself “lucky” that the other scientists in the project included his research. The North Carolina native was drawn into the project by his co-researchers based on a paper he wrote about Carolina Bays while helping a buddy taking a class at Carolina. “I’m just a tag-along,” he said of his part.

Regardless of how he assumed his role, he is pleased to be part of a team possibly unraveling the Carolina Bays story.

“I don’t like unsolved riddles,” Howard said. “I love this state. I’m a ‘statriot,’ and I want this mystery to end. People have talked about this for many, many years, and other people have proposed before that a comet could have done this. We need to figure out what caused the 40,000 elliptical depressions on our coastal plain.”

Howard worked on wetlands issues as a staffer for former Sens. Lauch Faircloth and Jesse Helms from 1990-96. He entered his environmental life as part of a mitigation project in the Cape Fear River basin. Howard went on to co-found Restoration Systems with John Preyer in 1998.

The firm works to restore wetlands and earn wetland credits for its clients. Howard travels the country speaking about mitigation and has testified before Congress. A political science graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, Howard is a native of Guilford County and grew up in a construction-related family. Both his grandfathers were engineers.

Howard and his wife, Pam, live in Raleigh with their two children, George and Henry.