Tanya Atwater
Research Information


Description of Research and its Communication


Atwater's research has concerned many aspects of plate tectonics (the modern version of continental drift), both at sea and on the land and at all scales, from global to local.
   In the oceanic realm, Atwater has participated in or led numerous oceanographic expeditions in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, working with surface and deep towed instruments and diving to the deep ocean floor (twelve times) in the tiny submersible Alvin. She worked many years on the volcano-tectonic processes involved in the making of new oceanic crust at sea floor spreading centers. Her 1968 Science paper (written in her first year of graduate school with her graduate advisor Mudie) established, for the first time, the faulted nature of spreading centers. She led or was a member of the scientific parties for several of the early submersible studies of spreading centers, including the expeditions that located the ocean floor warm springs with their strange biology and the "black smoker" super-hot springs. Related to this work, she led or participated in numerous field trips to on-land occurrences of suspected oceanic crust in Iceland, Newfoundland, Soviet Georgia, Cyprus, California, to get a first hand, daylight look at these features.
   Atwater was part of the team, led by Richard Hey, that first characterized the "propagating rifts" near the Galapagos Islands . These are the primary features created when sea floor spreading centers realign themselves in response to plate motion changes or uneven magma supplies. In a series of expeditions, this Galapagos team worked out the fundamental geometry of a presently active system. She and her student Severinghaus then went on to establish the existence of numerous fossil propagating rifts in the sea floor of the northeast Pacific, establishing them as a ubiquitous features, and exploring their implications for plate motion instabilities. Two papers are still in preparation from this work, one establishing the existence of a remarkable pair of giant, dueling, overlapping propagating rifts on the mid-Cenozoic Farallon-Vancouver plate boundary.
   With her graduate school mentor Menard, Atwater created the first magnetic isochron map of the northeast Pacific ocean floor in 1970. She published its update and revision (in Menard's honor) with her graduate student Severinghaus in 1989. These particular maps are the definitive data bases used by all researchers who study the creation and evolution of this ocean basin and of the plate tectonic history of western North America.
   Atwater is perhaps best known for her work on the plate tectonic history of western North America. For decades, her 1970 paper on the birth and growth of the San Andreas fault system was required reading in geology courses all across North America. She has returned to this work in the last decade, updating and expanding it. In the last few years she has been refining these relationships, trying to more firmly establish the plate tectonic origins of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. Currently, she is involved in several projects with Joann Stock at Cal Tech, using recent improvements in the global oceanic data base to refine and sharpen the resolution of late Cenozoic plate reconstructions along the rim of North America. The on-land geological community has, meanwhile, made great strides in both conceptual understanding and the quantification of various regional continental deformations. The compilation and combination of these refinements from the oceanic and continental realms allow a much tighter time/space budget of the late Cenozoic development of western North America, presented in an invited paper for the Clarence Hall Symposium Volume, submitted for review, Jan 1998. Many aspects of the geologic history of southern California and northern Mexico are fundamentally tied to the plate tectonic evolution of the area. Atwater is working on a number of local projects exploiting these relationships, including work in progress concerning the implications of a fossil forest discovered near Moorepark, various field guide compilations integrating plate tectonic and geologic histories, and work with J. Stock on Mexican geologic correlations.
   The Science Citation Index supplies one type of objective measure of the esteem in which Atwater's work is held. While most papers in the scientific literature are cited just a few times, if at all, Atwater's citations are regularly measured in the tens and hundreds. Her classic 1970 paper has more than a thousand citations.
   Atwater is driven by an abiding need to bring earth education / earth love to as many of the world's citizens as possible. (Love it or lose it!) She is deeply involved in the undergraduate program, teaching, counseling students and leading curriculum modernization efforts. She produced an introductory teaching film about plate tectonics that has sold many hundreds of copies and is widely used in introductory classes across the nation. She runs numerous K-12 teacher workshops and field trips, regularly lectures for civic groups, and consults regularly with the press, TV producers and museum designers. She regularly, freely consults with colleagues from all aspects of the geosciences, helping them to put their specialized works into the broader context of the plate motions and histories. She is presently deeply involved in the production of geologic computer animations to explain and illustrate her plate tectonic work. While these animations began as a project for the Smithsonian Museum and for other public education projects, they have been enthusiastically embraced as a research visualization tool by numerous colleagues across the nation. They will soon be released over the Web for general use. She is in very great demand as a speaker for institutions of all levels, with regular repeat invitations from the most prestigious.



[People]  [Research]  [Resources]  [Alumni] 
[Life]  [Graduate]  [Undergrad]  [Outreach]