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Remembering Bill Normark

Bill Normark: USGS Marine Geologist, Mentor, Winemaker

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"At sea a fellow comes out. Salt water is like wine, in that respect."
—Herman Melville

 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research geologist Bill Normark passed quietly away on Saturday, January 12, 2008, at home with his wife, DJ, at his side, after a 7-year fight against cancer. Bill was an emeritus scientist who had retired from the USGS last October.

Bill is particularly well known for his work on the characteristics and depositional patterns of turbidite-fan deposits, including studies of the Monterey, Navy, and Hueneme Fans off central and southern California, the Laurentian Fan off eastern Canada, and the Amazon Fan off Brazil. With his closest collaborator, David J.W. Piper of the Geological Survey of Canada, Bill coauthored some 30 papers about the architecture, sediment type, and growth patterns of fan deposits, both ancient and modern. It is safe to say that turbidite fans, turbidity-current flows, and the mechanisms of moving large amounts of terrigenous sediment to the deep sea through hyperpycnal (density driven) flows formed the core—though only one part—of Bill's scientific interests.

Bill Normark and his wife Dorothy Jean (DJ) in 1967 Bill Normark and his wife DJ in 2004
Above: Bill Normark and his wife Dorothy Jean (DJ) in 1967 (left) at the apartment of David J.W. Piper in La Jolla, California; and in 2004 (right), sharing their homemade wine at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the USGS campus in Menlo Park, California.

Bill was a major participant in many groundbreaking scientific discoveries, starting in the 1960s. During his graduate-student years, Bill worked with Fred Spiess of Scripps Institution of Oceanography on some of the first deep-water mapping efforts—including Deep Tow, the first deep-towed, remotely operated vehicle for high-resolution bathymetric and magnetic mapping of the sea floor—and was hired at the USGS in 1974, partly owing to this expertise. Bill's initial research for the USGS included working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on using digital unmanned, tethered vehicles for deep-sea mapping; investigating the depositional processes and resource potential of deep-sea fans; and researching marine sedimentary environments and the formation of sedimentary rocks.

In 1979, Bill was aboard the submersible Alvin at 21° north on the East Pacific Rise when the first hydrothermal black-smoker vents and chimneys were discovered. Unaware of the intense heat of the fluid (later determined to be approximately 350°C), the Alvin pilot drove through the smoke, and only afterward, when they discovered that the vent fluid had melted PVC piping holding a temperature probe, did the pilot and scientists realize that they had put themselves at risk. A scientific article reporting this discovery won Fred Spiess and his coauthors, including Bill, the 1980 Newcomb-Cleveland Prize for best paper published in the journal Science (v. 207, no. 4438, p. 1421-1433, URL

Because of his sea-floor-mapping experience, Bill led the early 1980s' USGS program researching hydrothermal-mineral deposits on ocean-spreading centers—primarily on the Juan de Fuca Ridge (off Washington and Oregon) and the Gorda Ridge (off Oregon and California)—in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and academia. At the same time, he fostered the Geological Survey of Canada's hydrothermal-mineral program.

Ed Clifton congratulates Bill and Randy Koski on recovery of massive sulfide Bill debarks from the submersible Alvin
Above left: Branch chief Ed Clifton (right) congratulates Bill (left) and Randy Koski on recovery of massive sulfide from the southern Juan de Fuca Ridge off Oregon in 1981, marking the first discovery of hydrothermal-vent activity in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. The rock in front of them is basalt brought up in the same dredge haul that recovered massive sulfide. [larger version]

Above right: Bill debarks from the submersible Alvin after a 1984 dive on the southern Juan de Fuca Ridge off Oregon. [larger version]

During the USGS GLORIA (Geological LOng-Range Inclined Asdic) mapping program, which used sidescan sonar to map the entire U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (from U.S. coastlines out 200 nautical miles), Bill led efforts to map the sea floor around the Hawaiian Islands in 1986. Bill and various USGS colleagues, including Jim Moore and other scientists from the Volcano Hazards Team, identified gigantic submarine debris avalanches—some of the largest mass failures on Earth—off nearly all the volcanic edifices in the Hawaiian Ridge chain. The sheer scale of these failures suggests major tsunami potential, which has important implications for monitoring of the active south flank of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.

Bill and others prepare equipment for deployment during a cruise to the southern Juan de Fuca Ridge
Above: Bill (to right of instrument frame) and others prepare equipment for deployment during a cruise to the southern Juan de Fuca Ridge off Oregon, 1982. [larger version]

From 1988 to 1995, Bill stepped back from research to serve the USGS as the Western Regional Associate Chief Scientist and as the first Regional Geologist (acting). During this time, Bill continued his research activities and served on several Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) advisory panels. In addition, Bill was a Joint Oceanographic Institutions/U.S. Science Advisory Committee Distinguished Lecturer for 1995-96, participated as one of two sedimentologists on ODP Leg 155 to the Amazon Fan, and was a member of the Leg 155 editorial team. During much of his career, Bill served on the editorial boards for several journals, including Geology, the Journal of Sedimentary Petrology (now Journal of Sedimentary Research), Marine Geodesy, and the Giornale di Geologia. Immediately after his management time, Bill spent 6 months observing the Geological Survey of Canada at the USGS Chief Geologist's behest to learn how the Canadian agency's regional structure could be adapted to the USGS.

 Bill, Gretchen Luepke, Keith Kvenvolden, and Roland von Huene Bill and Keith Kvenvolden
Above: Bill's many talents included playing the bassoon (left photograph, with Gretchen Luepke on flute, Keith Kvenvolden on recorder, and Roland von Huene looking on [larger version]) and a related instrument called a racket (right photograph, with Keith Kvenvolden (left) on recorder [larger version]).

In 1996, Bill returned to active research within what is now called the Western Coastal and Marine Geology Team, to concentrate on two general topics: (1) pathways and eventual sinks of sediment and contaminants moving from the coastal zone to the deep sea, and (2) identification of offshore hazards in southern California. His research included high-resolution stratigraphy of several California fan systems and age constraints on recent offshore fault movement and submarine landslides along California continental margins. In particular, he found widespread evidence of earthquake and tsunami hazards, including very recent deformational events at the west end of the Santa Monica Basin, large submarine slides off southern Santa Monica Bay, and active faults in the northeastern basin margin. In addition, Bill studied the size, timing, and tsunamigenic effect of a large submarine landslide off the Palos Verdes Peninsula that occurred approximately 7,500 years ago. Bill also worked on the identification of natural oil and gas seeps offshore Point Conception and in the western Santa Barbara Channel, was part of the team that discovered the first methane hydrate in offshore southern California, and found abundant evidence for shallow gas accumulations in sediment fill at the east end of Santa Monica Basin. (See related articles, "USGS Report of Methane Hydrate Off Southern California Sparks Media Interest" and "USGS Scientists Discover Gas Hydrate in Southern California During Cruise to Study Offshore Landslides, Earthquake Hazards, and Pollution" in Sound Waves.)

Bill Normark, DJ Normark, and Dave Scholl Dave Scholl impersonates Bill Normark
Above left: (Right to left) Bill and wife DJ converse with colleague, good friend, and partner-in-winemaking Dave Scholl during a birthday celebration for Dave in 2004. [larger version]

Above right: Dave impersonates Bill at a 2006 USGS gathering. [larger version]

In the early 2000s, Bill used geophysical data collected some 20 years earlier during the hydrothermal-minerals program to determine the fate and scale of humongous late Pleistocene flood deposits in the deep sea, showing that multiple pulses of water from glacial Lake Missoula (in what is now western Montana) carried nearly 1,500 km3 of sediment out of the ancestral Columbia River mouth. Hyperpycnal flows carried the sediment along the Cascadia Channel and through an opening in the Blanco Fracture Zone. From there, much of the sediment was channeled hundreds of kilometers westward over the Tufts Abyssal Plain, but the tops of many of the flows continued southward and were diverted by the Mendocino Fracture Zone into the box-canyon topography of Escanaba Trough (southern Gorda Ridge), where the sediment was trapped after a journey of more than 1,100 km from the Columbia River mouth. (See article and map, "Bill Normark Interview: A Huge Glacial Flood that Traveled Far Beneath the Sea" in Sound Waves, December 2000/January 2001.)

Bill Normark, Dot Baron, and Homa Lee
Above: Bill bowled, too! Shown here with Dot Baron (center) and Homa Lee (right), his partners on the team "Shipwrecked" in the USGS Mixed Trios Bowling League in 2005. [larger version]

Bill was the first author of at least 90 peer-reviewed papers among the more than 230 papers (and some 150 presentations) that carry his name, and acted as chief or co-chief for about half of the more than 60 research cruises on which he went to sea. The Department of the Interior (DOI) recognized Bill's outstanding career with the DOI Meritorious Service Award (1986) and Distinguished Service Award (2002), and the USGS promoted him to Senior Scientist status in April 2006. In addition, Bill received the Michael J. Keen Medal (2003) from the Geological Survey of Canada for contributions to the field of marine geoscience and the Francis Shepard Medal (2005) from the Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM) for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology. In 1986-87, he was an American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) Distinguished Lecturer. In 2004, he was elected as a Fellow to the American Geophysical Union in both the Ocean Sciences and Tectonophysics sections.

Bill wanted to be remembered, in part, for his relationship with the Geological Survey of Canada, including his fostering of their hydrothermal-vents research program and the months he spent at the agency in 1998 observing its regional management structure. In a similar vein, his relationships with and mentoring of many international and local graduate students, particularly at Stanford University, were immensely important to him.

To those who knew Bill, his collaborative efforts with scientists in other USGS programs and outside the USGS, both within and external to his areas of expertise, are legendary, as is his scientific and personal generosity. An expert amateur winemaker, Bill freely shared his knowledge and his wines, and he could always suggest a great place to eat anywhere in the world. His humorous sense of the absurd and commitment to noting details gave him an unparalleled view of science and Government service.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Tributes to Bill Normark
June 2008
The (Slow) Ascent of the Sea Cliff
June 2008
Pisces Dive P5-78, Hawai'i
June 2008
USGS Report of Methane Hydrate Off Southern California Sparks Media Interest
March 2006
Bill Normark Receives a Medal Named for His Early Mentor, Francis P. Shepard
July 2005
Two USGS Scientists Selected as AGU Fellows in Ocean Sciences
March 2004
USGS Scientists Discover Gas Hydrate in Southern California During Cruise to Study Offshore Landslides, Earthquake Hazards, and Pollution
November 2003
Canada's Michael J. Keen Medal Awarded to Bill Normark
March 2003
Distinguished Service Award Presented to Bill Normark
October 2002
Bill Normark Interview: A Huge Glacial Flood that Traveled Far Beneath the Sea
Dec. 2000 / Jan. 2001
Southern California Earthquake Hazards
August 1999

Related Web Sites
East Pacific Rise: Hot Springs and Geophysical Experiments
Extensive Deposits on the Pacific Plate from Late Pleistocene North American Glacial Lake Outbursts
The Journal of Geology
Sandy Fans-From Amazon to Hueneme and Beyond
AAPG Bulletin
U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) GLORIA Mapping Program
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
Distinguished Lecturer Series
Joint Oceanographic Institutions/U.S. Science Advisory Committee

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cover story:
Water-Quality Monitoring

New Method to Estimate Sea-Ice Thickness

Meetings Airborne Lidar Processing System Workshop

Staff Bill Normark Passes Away

Bill Normark: Tributes

Bill Normark: Ascent of Sea Cliff

Bill Normark: Pisces Dive P5-78

St. Petersburg Office Dedicates New Building

USGS Deputy Director Addresses Downtown Partnership

Publications Coastal-Sediment-Transport Data in Google Earth

June 2008 Publications List U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Sound Waves Monthly Newsletter

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