(1942- ) AmericanTectonics, Marine Geophysicist
After the initial documentation of seafloor spreading by some of the giants of geology, there were still many details about the ocean floor to unravel. One of the main researchers in the second wave of plate tectonics is Tanya Atwater. Incredibly, of her first five professional articles, three were deemed so important that they were reprinted in textbooks and professional volumes. Two of these papers include “Changes in the Direction of Sea Floor Spreading” and “Implications of Plate Tectonics for the Cenozoic Tectonic Evolution of Western North America.” She collaborated with several noted scientists including H. WILLIAM MENARD and Fred Vine. Part of her research included the defining of new processes on the ocean floor including the mechanics and topographic expression of oceanic fracture zones (transform faults), and shifting directions of seafloor spreading. She also defined new processes of mid-ocean ridges and the formation of new ocean crust. This research established Atwa-ter as one of the leaders in tectonics of ocean basins and a pioneer for women in this field. To undertake the research, she was a member of several research cruises that previously had been restricted to male participants only. She studied the deep ocean floor at 2.5 to 3.5 km in the famous ALVIN submersible on a dozen occasions. She was on drilling expeditions worldwide and participated in collecting some of the data that provide the definitive evidence for the accepted theories now appearing in introductory textbooks worldwide.
Atwater became not only an expert on processes but also on specific geologic features. She is one of the foremost experts on the tectonics of the northeast Pacific Ocean as well as the mid-Atlantic Ridge near and in Iceland. Much of her process-oriented work was gleaned from the study of these areas. But she not only worked undersea. She was the first to determine the origin and evolution of the San Andreas Fault of California, which she did early in her career. Later in her career, she is again investigating the tectonics of southern California. This time much of her work has been geared toward geoscience education and communication. She has devoted great efforts to educating science teachers on the rich geology of California. It has been like a second career for Atwater, who now conducts workshops for science teachers and consults on the production of written media as well as with museums, television, and on video productions about geo-sciences. She has also continued her role as one of the principal spokespersons for the integration of women into geology and the physical sciences in general.
Tanya Atwater was born on August 27, 1942, in Los Angeles, California. She attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1960 to 1963 but transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and earned a bachelor of science degree in geology in 1965, Phi Beta Kappa. She did her graduate studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, and earned a Ph.D. in 1972. She joined the faculty at Scripps Institution in 1972 but accepted a position in the joint program of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, in 1974. Atwater moved back to the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1980 and remains there today. She was a USA-USSR exchange scientist in 1973. Atwater was married to fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology geologist PETER MOLNAR and together they have one son.
Tanya Atwater on a field trip to the Kelso Dunes, Central Mojave Desert in 1994
Tanya Atwater has had a productive career. She is an author on 50 articles in international journals, professional volumes, and major reports, as well as video presentations. Many of these are benchmark studies on marine geophysics and tectonics that were reprinted in definitive volumes on the topics. Seven of these papers appeared in the high-profile journals Nature and Science. Atwater has been recognized for her contributions to the profession through numerous honors and awards. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She was declared Scientist of the Year for the 1980 World Book . The same year she won the Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American
Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1984, she won the Encouragement Award from the Association of Women Geoscientists and she was a Sloan Fellow in 1975-1977. She was also named to endowed distinguished lectureships at Carleton College, Minnesota, and San Antonio State College, Texas.
Atwater also performed service to the profession. She served on several national and international committees and panels including being chair of the Ocean Margin Drilling Advisory Committee and a member of the International Drilling Project. She also served on numerous committees for the American Geophysical Union.