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Geological heroes: Marine geologist Bill Normark

April 23, 2010

The theme for this month’s geoscience blog carnival, The Accretionary Wedge, is geological heroes. Callan Bentley of the Mountain Beltway blog is hosting:

I invite all participants (geobloggers and geoblog readers alike) to contribute stories of their heroes. It’s time to pay tribute to the extraordinary individuals who helped make your life, your science, and your planet better than they would otherwise have been.

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There are many people that I could call a “hero” but one that had a significant influence on me is marine geologist Bill Normark (1943-2008). Bill spent the majority of his career with the Coastal and Marine Geology division of the USGS in Menlo Park, California. Bill worked on many aspects of marine geology throughout his career but what he is perhaps best known for is the exploration and investigation of deep-sea sedimentary systems (submarine fans). Bill was among the first to characterize the sedimentology and geomorphology of turbidite fans and to propose conceptual models of their occurrence and evolution.

Bill’s early publications (late 1960s-early 1970s), especially the 1970 paper on submarine fan growth patterns, are now among the publications that any turbidite researcher must read and re-read. The image below is a figure from that paper. It shows data from a seismic-reflection profile and, in this case, reveals the cross-sectional geometry of a submarine fan valley.

Figure 6 from Normark, W.R., 1970, Growth patterns of deep-sea fans: AAPG Bulletin, 54, 2170-2195

The quality of these data may seem pretty limiting compared to the cutting-edge multibeam bathymetric data of today, which is a testament to the strength of Bill’s insights from those days. But this was cutting edge at the time. Which brings me to one of Bill’s qualities that put him within a class of highly influential scientists — he never stopped utilizing the latest tools and technologies to do his science. Bill didn’t just have a few high-impact papers from his early work — he continued to innovate and publish throughout his entire career. For example, in the last few years of Bill’s life he hooked up with scientists and engineers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to use their state-of-the-art Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to map the sea floor at unprecedented resolutions. In fact, Bill’s last first-authored paper, which ended up coming out several months after he passed away, uses the data from this tool to investigate details of sedimentary processes (image below).

High-resolution bathymetric data of deep-sea erosional scours acquired by Bill Normark using MBARI's AUV system (credit: Fig. 5 of Normark et al.; Sedimentology, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3091.2009.01052.x)

Bill also had great respect and admiration for his predecessors and mentors. He encouraged us to read the old papers, monographs, and books from deep-sea mapping pioneers of the early 20th century. Bill held special reverence for one of his mentors, the great marine geologist Francis Shepard and was very honored to receive the Society for Sedimentary Geology’s Francis Shepard Medal for excellence in marine geology in 2005.

Bill’s influence on my own research and development as a geologist has been profound. Before collaborating with Bill my experience was almost wholly with ancient deep-sea systems preserved in the stratigraphic record (especially outcrops). Bill’s marine geologist point of view — studying modern and geologically recent systems — has led to my interest in integrating observations from the ancient and the modern. One of the seminal papers in turbidite research (and required reading for anyone in this field) is from Bill and outcrop geologist Emilano Mutti in 1987*. In this paper they present a comprehensive discussion of the values and challenges associated with comparing results from ancient and modern studies. It’s one of those papers that when I re-read I gain yet another nugget of insight. I think that trying to bridge the gaps in our understanding of these processes as gained from modern vs. ancient studies is a worthy endeavor and Bill is an inspiration in that regard.

Bill Normark inspecting equipment on a 1982 cruise on the Juan de Fuca ridge (credit: USGS)

Because the Menlo Park USGS office is close to my PhD alma mater and we were also researching deep-sea sedimentary systems, Bill ended up serving on my and several others committees. A few of us ended up collaborating very closely with Bill — spending a lot of time with him and using USGS data and resources for our projects. One of the last papers Bill worked on before he lost his battle to cancer was a major component of my Ph.D. dissertation (published last year in GSA Bulletin; pdf). This project was a true collaboration in that it was based on a lot of data and information Bill had investigated in the past combined with some of my own ideas and questions. Bill was a great mentor in that respect — he was patient and encouraging, letting us figure things out on our own while also providing guidance.

Finally, Bill was simply an awesome person. His enthusiasm was infectious and he was always thinking and looking forward. The whole time I knew and worked with Bill he was battling cancer and his energy and interest was still greater than most. Bill was also an accomplished wine maker. He brought the diligence and attention-to-detail he used in his science to the wine-making process, which resulted in being awarded some medals in prestigious California wine competitions in the mid-2000s.

Bill is sorely missed by his family, friends, and colleagues but his accomplishments and influence will be with us for a very long time.

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* Mutti, E., and Normark, W.R., 1987, Comparing examples of modern and ancient turbidite systems; problems and concepts, in Legget, J.K., and Zuffa, G.G., eds., Deep Water Clastic Deposits: Models and Case Histories: London, Graham and Trotman, p. 1–38. tion 10, p. 75–90.

Other articles about Bill Normark:

(1) Short biography, including list of scientific accomplishments, from the USGS for more information about Bill Normark’s career: http://soundwaves.usgs.gov/2008/06/staff.html

(2) A memorial written by my colleague, Andrea Fildani, published in AGU’s EOS newsletter in May 2008: http://www.agu.org/pubs/eos/eo0822.shtml (scroll down to see link to PDF)


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    April 24, 2010 1:07 pm

    Good stuff Brian! Sometime you ought to consider a summary of some of the highlights from Mutti and Normark, 1987…. the world needs to know (or be reminded)!

  2. Silindile dlamini permalink
    August 19, 2010 1:29 am

    I wil also like 2 become a marine geologist

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