March 1, 2024


Science It Works

A Remarkable Impact | The UCSB Current

It’s a unusual several researchers whose discoveries are so monumental that they go away an indelible mark on culture. Amid them is UC Santa Barbara’s Tanya Atwater, who has watched her groundbreaking research transition into popular expertise.

Now, the Geological Society of London has awarded Atwater the Wollaston Medal for her contribution to the concept of seafloor spreading and the geology of western North The united states. This medal is presented to geoscientists who have experienced a significant affect by way of a considerable entire body of excellent investigation in pure and applied facets of earth science. 1st awarded in 1831, the Wollaston Medal is the society’s greatest honor.

“It’s a minor late,” chuckled Atwater, who has technically been retired for 14 many years now. “I could’ve applied it a whilst in the past.” Atwater is accustomed to perspiring really hard for recognition. She was a mover and shaker at a time when females had to fight their way into the scientific profession.

Atwater’s evaluation of magnetic signatures helped describe seafloor spreading, a important element of plate tectonics. She unearthed the geology and geography of California, describing the San Andreas Fault and the subduction of the Farallon plate beneath North The us.

Often hunting to inspire other folks, Atwater dove headlong into education and learning outreach. She labored with academics, museums, film crews — anybody intrigued in spreading the very good term about plate tectonics. As element of the scientific advisory board for K-12 curricula, she championed geology as a quality-school issue, and when-groundbreaking theories are now familiar classes in science classes during the nation. Even though she officially retired, Atwater proceeds her education and learning outreach and still allows to lead field outings for geology pupils.

“I am so happy and honored to congratulate Professor Tanya Atwater on her receipt of the Wollaston Medal,” mentioned Chancellor Henry T. Yang. “This main recognition from her peers sites Professor Atwater between the ranks of eminent scientists these as Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell and William Smith. Her groundbreaking analysis on plate tectonics has expanded our comprehending of planet Earth, and her continuing achievements are a resource of satisfaction and inspiration for our entire UC Santa Barbara community.”

“I congratulate Tanya Atwater on this monumental achievement,” extra Pierre Wiltzius, government dean of the University of Letters and Science and Susan and Bruce Worster Dean of Science. “Her contributions to the university and the field of geology all through her illustrious vocation have been several and profound.”

The suitable time

Although it is now taught in elementary school, the theory of plate tectonics arrived reasonably not too long ago. Right before the 1970s, quite a few geologists have been fixists, believing that the continents ended up immobile, or mounted, on the planet’s surface.

To be certain, the thought of continental drift had been kicking all around because Alfred Wegener initially proposed it in 1912, but it was generally shunned. The factor was, no 1 knew what was heading on beneath the ocean. “Scientists knew there had been rocks beneath the ocean,” Atwater mentioned, “so how could the continents plow through the rocks? They just could not get their minds around how the continents could be relocating.”

It took all of two minutes to convince Atwater that the theory of plate tectonics was a profitable horse. Following ending her undergraduate degree partly at the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how and then UC Berkeley, she took an entry-degree geophysics occupation in Chile. One particular day, she attended a marine geophysics lecture reporting the magnetic designs that were being currently being found in seafloor rock.

Regional magnetism can impact the measurements of Earth’s magnetic field ever so a little bit. Scientists and the armed forces started off noticing these magnetic anomalies though conducting surveys of the ocean late in World War II and the early Chilly War, as they scouted for submarines. Finally, scientists started to compile quite a report.

Seafloor spreading

As new crust spreads from mid ocean ridges, it is magnetic signature documents the strength and orientation of Earth’s magnetic area. Simply because the magnetic industry modifications, the magnetic anomaly profile of the seafloor types stripes stretching absent from the spreading center.

Picture Credit: Atwater Animations

“This profile in the South Pacific was so symmetrical and so very clear,” Atwater recalled. “The reversals of the Earth’s magnetic industry matched the things they’d observed on land so nicely — and no a single has at any time arrive up with any other way to describe the stripes other than seafloor spreading.”

Seafloor spreading was the key to fixing continental drift, she understood. The continents do not require to plow through the oceanic crust if the seafloor alone moves out of the way.

“I just went, ‘Wow, there’s a revolution heading on and I’m lacking it.’”

A field in disarray

Atwater speedily applied to a doctoral plan at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. “The plate tectonics revolution arrived there two months ahead of I did,” she recalled.

Geologist Fred Vine, then at Princeton, experienced just supplied a lecture about magnetic anomaly profiles and plate tectonics. So, when Atwater arrived at Scripps to get started her Ph.D. do the job, the whole place was in disarray. “This august oceanography institute had all these data rolled out on the hallway flooring,” she said. “Everybody was just so energized.”

Scientists and the armed forces experienced been amassing magnetic anomaly profiles of the seabed for years because it was reasonably straightforward to do. But they were being complete of unreadable wiggles, so they frequently sat rolled up on cabinets. Abruptly, scientists recognized that these records of the Earth’s magnetic area had been their most effective tools for uncovering the geologic processes taking place deep beneath the waves.

Atwater devoted a lot of months of her existence to deciphering these data. “It wasn’t very difficult to make perception of them the moment we experienced the critical,” she explained.

The stripes of magnetic signatures instructed a story of crust spreading outward as new crust emerged from rifts in the centers of the oceans. The width of these stripes could even inform scientists how quickly the crust was spreading. A great deal like how Newton’s legal guidelines of gravity demystified the motions of the heavenly bodies, the magnetic anomaly profiles had been elucidating the motions of the Earth’s floor plates.

The San Andreas

The magnetic anomaly profiles off of California have been especially crystal clear. The issues was, there was only just one aspect of the sample. It was virtually as even though the spreading center was less than North The usa. Atwater observed that this irregularity transpired only in the zone spanned by the San Andreas Fault, which researchers ended up pretty positive was a plate boundary by that time.

ocean continent subduction example

Oceanic crust dives beneath a continental plate as a subduction boundary. The course of action offers rise to a chain of volcanoes called a volcanic arc.

Photograph Credit history: Atwater Animations

In the meantime, her colleagues researching the continents had a quandary of their individual. Commonly, when a continental plate like North The united states fulfills an oceanic plate like the Pacific, the dense ocean crust dives underneath the continent forming a subduction zone. And when it was clear that the San Andreas was the boundary in between the two plates, it is a strike-slip fault, where movement is mostly horizontal.

“I realized that we could response a bunch of these issues the terrestrial geologists had about the San Andreas with this seafloor details,” Atwater claimed.

She also regarded that cracking these quandaries would call for obtaining the ages of just about every stripe in the magnetic anomaly profiles off the California coast. But it appeared there was no way to get them. The scientists required a lot more exact courting techniques, but all the rocks have been beneath the ocean floor, less than thick levels of mud.

The good news is, deep-sea drilling was on the rise, and the tactics made use of to drill for oil and pure fuel could easily penetrate the mud and sample the rock beneath. However, the deep ocean lava rock itself was not amenable to readily available relationship methods. But there was another way. By figuring out the fossil microorganisms in the very first layer of sediment, the scientists could discern when the rock had very first been included, and thus when it experienced fashioned. The scenario was cracked.

For additional than 100 million a long time, the North American plate experienced been operating around the oceanic Farallon plate. Around 25 to 30 million several years back, it ultimately arrived at the spreading boundary concerning the Farallon and Pacific plates, leaving only the western aspect of the document for experts to come across in the 20th century. The Juan de Fuca plate, in the Pacific Northwest, and the Cocos plate, west of Central America, are remnants of the historical Farallon plate.

Right after most of the Farrallon Plate experienced sunk beneath North American, the continent’s boundary altered from a subduction zone to the suitable lateral fault we get in touch with the San Andreas.

Photograph Credit rating: ATWATER ANIMATIONS

It was only soon after the subduction of the spreading centre in between the Farallon and Pacific plates that North The us could start out interacting with the Pacific. And as a result was born the San Andreas Fault, which stretches from the Gulf of California to Cape Mendocino.

In 1970, Atwater authored a paper that laid all this out. “To this working day, there are generations of geologists who cite that paper I wrote as the definitive textual content wherever you discover about plate tectonics,” she mentioned.

She right away departed from Scripps for a lecture tour all around the Western U.S. to unfold the information about seafloor spreading, plate tectonics and the San Andreas Fault. The place filled up anywhere she went.

Not only had Atwater made a significant breakthrough in geology but she was also the only female in geophysics, as she recalled. When requested if it was lonely, her reaction was, “Uh … it was enjoyment.

“I was proper out of Berkeley, and gals did not have on satisfies in all those times,” she continued, “so there I was, in my bouquets and beads and bare feet, being a full hippie in these conferences complete of adult males in fits.”

A long time coming

Plate tectonics is a basic factor of geology on Earth. So how is it that these thoughts weren’t solved right until the 1970s?

“The reply is basically know-how,” Atwater claimed. “We just did not know what was underwater in the ocean. I hate to give wars any credit score, but in World War II, all kinds of issues have been made to test to uncover the submarines that had been wreaking these havoc on delivery. This incorporated the magnetometer.” This time period also noticed the refinement of deep-sea echo sounders, which could accurately evaluate the ocean’s depth making use of sound and a specific clock.

A map of earthquakes from 2000 to 2008 of magnitude of 5.0 and above

A map of earthquakes from 2000 to 2008 of magnitude of 5. and higher than. The spots expose the boundaries of Earth’s big tectonic plates.


What’s a lot more, the signatories of the nuclear test ban treaties desired a way to watch compliance. So the United States sent a conventional established of seismometers to many establishments all-around the planet asking only that they ship the information back each and every couple months, Atwater discussed. Suddenly, we had been checking all the earthquakes in the environment.

“And have you seen a map of the earthquake areas?” Atwater questioned. “They just outline the plates properly. It’s like a hook up-the-dots video game in kindergarten.”

Professor Atwater

In 1972, Atwater joined the school at MIT. When there, she was capable to stop by the seafloor options that, until finally then, experienced been just details on charts. MIT has a quite energetic joint method with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the household base for Alvin, the famous deep-sea submersible.

Atwater marking records in Alvin

Atwater ventured to the to the seafloor to research, to start with hand, geologic features she had recognized only from details.

Photograph Credit rating: COURTESY Picture

“We made a decision after a though that all people who scientific tests the ocean flooring needs to go down there,” Atwater reported. “It’s an fast instruction to see the seafloor with your eyes. It does not even make a difference if you mess up the information you’re adjusted for existence.”

Deep-sea adventures apart, Atwater had a difficult time as an assistant professor. “The entire set up was for a man’s occupation,” she mirrored. Young academics are usually pushed toward productivity overdrive, but this is specifically when several gals choose to have young ones. “It was quite inappropriate for a lady if she needed to have a spouse and children just when you are supposed to be powering up the science highway.” The two calls for had been difficult to reconcile.

Modern society continue to struggles to handle the get the job done-family members conundrum that younger women of all ages face. Atwater, for just one, thinks it will often be a obstacle. Luckily for her, MIT’s geology division chair was in advance of the curve on this issue, and Atwater’s career ongoing to blossom together with her youthful son.

But soon after seven years in Boston, the Los Angeles indigenous was growing weary of the East Coast.

In 1980, she was browsing her relatives for Xmas in Santa Barbara, the place they experienced moved even though she was in substantial university. “I went out to the university and stated, ‘Any probability I could get a task right here?’” she recalled. “And they designed just one for me.”

At UC Santa Barbara, Atwater was able to certainly embrace her like of educating. She constantly chose to instruct one particular of the intro geology or oceanography courses. “It’s a few hundred college students, and a large amount of them are just in there to verify off their science prerequisite,” she reported. “But there were always some who just caught hearth, and it was so exciting to be able to take that ride with them.” She made an honors portion for significantly enthusiastic college students and ongoing main area trips yrs after she stopped officially educating courses.

Sharing her enthusiasm

Atwater began major teacher workshops on plate tectonics in the 1980s and ’90s. Geology was finally getting additional to the necessary curriculum, and lots of instructors hadn’t a clue about the matter, Atwater recalled.

She also became far more concerned with instruction and plan outreach about 2000, soon after currently being elected to the Nationwide Academy of Sciences. She served on the academy’s advisory committee for K-12 science benchmarks. A person victory was eventually earning earth and place science — previously regarded as a stepsister of physics and chemistry — its personal spot between the expectations.

Atwater was keen to seek advice from with any person who would request, and she struck up some notably fruitful relationships with the normal historical past museums in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara. She also helped make a film for a museum on the Chesapeake Bay, and she helped rework the indicators for the Earthquake Path in Northern California.

Atwater produced herself obtainable to publishers and filmmakers alike. She edited a guide for Time/Lifetime about plate tectonics, one of a set on earth science. “I’ve stood up in entrance of lots of digital camera crews,” Atwater explained, “mostly U.S., but also German and Japanese, and talked about the revolution.” In actuality, the veteran scientist even received an Emmy for her function on “Geology Throughout the American Landscape,” produced in 2011 as component of a city university academic challenge.

Atwater presentation

Atwater uses illustrations, designs and animations to convey plate tectonics to lifestyle in her presentations.

Photograph Credit rating: UC SANTA BARBARA

For the duration of these endeavors, Atwater began to dedicate much more and more time to acquiring academic products. She collaborated with John Iwerks — grandson of revolutionary Disney animator Ub Iwerks — to build multimedia parts which includes films, illustrations and infographics under the label Atwater Animations.

For many years, Atwater spoke about plate tectonics and the pleasure of doing work on this revolution. She ongoing providing invited lectures, pretty much usually coupling them with a public talk. “Pretty quickly the college students started declaring: ‘What’re you chatting about? I realized about this in kindergarten,’” she recalled. The new generation considered plate tectonics was so apparent that they could not see how researchers were being ever hung up on the make a difference.

Atwater considers herself profoundly privileged to have produced such an important contribution to human expertise and to have aided so several college students explore their passions. “I was just in the suitable position at the ideal time with the ideal instruments,” she said. “For a discovery like the San Andreas, that doesn’t come about much more than once in a life time.”

Tanya Atwater is a groundbreaking scientist and natural-born instructor at her core she is curious, enthusiastic and eager to share the spirit of discovery with any kindred spirit. “Sure, I do plate tectonics and the San Andreas and the ocean floor,” she said, “but what I seriously do is consider to make feeling out of the planet and assistance as several people today as I can also see the logic of it.”

“It’s so enjoyable when you break by,” she said. “I really like that, and I just appreciate it when I see it happen for any person else. It’s these kinds of a privilege to help people today uncover.”