2019 GSA Florence Bascom Geologic Mapping Award

Presented to Judy Fierstein & E. Wesley Hildreth

Judy Fierstein & E. Wesley Hildreth

Judy Fierstein & E. Wesley Hildreth
US Geological Survey


Citation by Colin Wilson

For almost 40 years, Edward Wesley Hildreth III and Judith Ellen Fierstein (more widely known to their many friends and colleagues as Wes and Judy) have worked on mapping and documenting many volcanoes of diverse sizes, shapes and erupted compositions. Although Wes had developed in the 1970s the basis for his studies on the Bishop Tuff at Long Valley and had collaborated with Bob Christiansen at Yellowstone, it was from 1980 onwards when Judy joined him on her first field campaign at the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (Katmai, Alaska) that this unmatched partnership  began. The circumstances were somewhat tragically fortuitous: Wes’s previous field co-worker was David A. Johnston, who had been killed in the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and a replacement was needed for that summer’s field season. Starting out in one of the more challenging field environments did not (apparently) deter Judy, and the pair of them have worked as a team ever since, joined at various times by colleagues from many countries. Judy and Wes have always been generous with their time, willing to share their geologic thoughts and ideas, and kindly lend a hand to help a students’ or colleagues’ mapping.

Wes and Judy together represent an unmatched combination of skills in the art and science of geological mapping. They have applied these skills to unraveling numerous continental volcanoes and their eruptive products in the western USA, Alaska and Chile, often in challenging and hostile environments, and for many years without the benefit of helicopter support. Between them, Judy and Wes have a record not only of undertaking extraordinarily detailed and time intensive field-based mapping studies, but also of bringing the resulting map products to timely completion. These products include an array of conventional maps which represent an output of benchmark quality on volcanoes, particularly in the Cascades arc and Alaska, which are globally available through the web. Their collective contributions lie, however, not only in the beautiful maps themselves but also in their creation of benchmark studies on how volcanoes and their associated magmatic systems operate. Their work shows how often-hard-won increments of data and observations accumulate to reveal the histories of entire volcanic fields; how mapping and understanding geologic field relationships provide an unequaled framework for interpretation of laboratory-generated data; and how well-honed curiosity, acute observations, and willingness to do the hard work combine to build world-class scientific contributions. 

The criteria laid down for the Geologic Mapping Award are eminently fitted by Judy and Wes. “This award acknowledges contributions in published high-quality geologic mapping that led the recipient to publish significant new scientific or economic-resource discoveries, and to contribute greater understanding of fundamental geologic processes and concepts.” Note that the singular “recipient” in these criteria is rightfully ignored here: the contributions of each to the overall body of work are inseparable, and neither Wes nor Judy could have accomplished what they have done without the contribution of the other. Their passion for geologic mapping has inspired young earth scientists, and provided a template for quality field-focused research in an era where such measured, crafted approaches are under increasing threat.


Response by Judy Fierstein

In 1889, 130 years ago, Daniel Gilman, the president of Johns Hopkins University, took a chance and admitted Florence Bascom to their PhD program in geology. Seven years later she became the first woman to be hired by the U.S. Geological Survey. Only 84 years after that, Wes Hildreth took a chance on this greenhorn, fresh out of my undergraduate studies at U.C. Santa Cruz and eager to see where my studies might take me. I couldn’t even have imagined then what was in store. Our 40-year partnership has taken us to many places, mapping volcanoes from Alaska to Chile with the privilege of exploring, learning, and discovering at each one. That contributions from a lifetime of geologic mapping are being recognized with this GSA award is humbling, thrilling, and immensely satisfying.

Wes initially hired me in the spring of 1980 to be his summer field assistant in mapping Mount Adams in Washington, but the eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens changed everything. Heavy ashfall closed all access to our intended target, so instead of mapping there, we headed north to Alaska and the wild backcountry of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Katmai National Park. Six weeks on my first-ever backpacking trip—just the two of us—with trailess miles, icy river crossings, bears, and 100-pound packs. (Even pumice adds up!). In what became Wes’ “modus operandi” with me, he pushed me beyond what I was used to and right away put me in charge of organizing the expedition food and supplies, even though I’d never done anything like it before. Field work at Katmai was life-changing—wind-driven mist most of the time, sandblasting pumice during rare sunny streaks, climbing thick pumice-covered hills Sisyphean style, all while trying to keep notebook and map dry, and thinking about landscape-forming processes in a place where we could see them happening. The challenges were physically and mentally formative, they expanded the scope of what I had thought possible, and opened my eyes, mind, and heart to the “wild” in wilderness. It was hard, but I felt at home.

The Valley of 10,00 Smokes, named for the ashflow that filled it during the 1912 Plinian eruption of Novarupta, was not only my training ground for rugged outdoor experience, but it became a large building block in my career. Mapping the 6 volcanoes around Novarupta and the many others in Katmai National Park provided a framework for a tephra-stratigraphic study of the postglacial explosive deposits they produced. It was an early lesson in combining different lines of evidence to produce whole-volcano eruptive histories, from glaciated arêtes to Holocene ash layers preserved in soil sections. Associated with mapping the distribution of the 1912 deposits, what began as a simple grain-size analysis of the pyroclastics became a detailed stratigraphic study that unraveled the 3-day sequence of events of the largest eruption of the 20th century. The time-stratigraphic information from that work was the foundation for a decade and a half of exploring the dynamics of Plinian eruptions with Colin Wilson and Bruce Houghton in the natural laboratory of the Katmai backcountry. I will be forever grateful to Colin and Bruce, who joined me to sieve proximal deposits in the Katmai rain, count pumice types to figure out mappable units, who taught me the finer points of logging tephra sections in the excruciating detail that make such studies tedious but productive, and for the insightful discussions that taught me to listen carefully, consider possibilities, and to stand my ground when I saw things differently.

In my experience, geologic mapping is an art that one develops over time. After my first summer in Alaska, Wes and I did go to Mount Adams where we sharpened our handlenses on Mount Adams’ south ridge, examining every lava flow in the stack to determine mappable units. Our mapping and partnership evolved through the decades, from Cascade Volcanoes in the U.S. to Andean volcanoes in Chile. We were joined through the years by friends and colleagues whose companionship, perspectives, and enthusiasm have been much appreciated, especially so for those ‘game’ enough to join us repeatedly in those hard-to-get-to places on high summits, glacial cirques, and long traverses—Dave Tucker, Andy Calvert, Juliet Ryan-Davis, Pirzio Godoy, and Bob Drake.  Field work is only part of what goes into making a geologic map.  It is an iterative process, informed by compositional, geochronologic, paleomagnetic and petrologic information that are interpreted together to build the stories of evolving landscapes. And, nowadays, all of this information gets compiled into digital databases for wide availability. We have been fortunate to have ample access to USGS dating and paleomagnetic laboratories, as well as to GIS expertise, and collaboration with our USGS colleagues, Andy Calvert, Duane Champion, and Joel Robinson have been crucial to our final products.  

“Mapping” hardly captures the breadth of how we’ve spent our partnership. Most satisfying is how those lines on the map inform our understanding of evolving landscapes and earth processes in various magmatic, tectonic, and structural settings. It is multi-faceted geologic detective work that combines disciplines and data sources with subsequent interpretations informing hazards assessments, resource analyses, and understanding how earth systems work. One example is the mapping we did in the 1990’s at Laguna del Maule in Chile, which was the foundation for my recent tephra-stratigraphic work there that is providing real constraints on the magmatic system beneath the volcanic field. International colleagues Pirzio Godoy, Paty Sruoga, Alvaro Amigo, and Manuela Elissondo have been key collaborators for many years.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had Wes as my mentor, friend, and colleague for four decades. He has pushed me to test my limits, perhaps being even more pleased than I at my successes. What has made this partnership work? Lots of walking in good boots; a sharp pencil and good handlens; a love of geologic detective work and blank spots on the map; and, importantly, a field partner who enjoys the same and can be a foil, muse, and constructive skeptic. Thanks to many colleagues for guidance and inspiration along the way, and to my husband, Rich, for unwavering support and encouragement. Not only have I been able to pursue my dreams, but we’ve been able to raise two great kids, both of whom have joined me in backcountry expeditions; I couldn’t have done it without him.  It has been my privilege to be a USGS geologist, and an honor to receive this award. I think Florence Bascom would be pleased.


Response by E. Wesley Hildreth

It’s been a privilege, adventure, and professional satisfaction to investigate volcanic fields in Alaska, Chile, the Cascades, and Long Valley.  Over 40 years together, Judy Fierstein and I made geologic maps of 20 and reconnoitered about 40 more.  I’ve previously received awards in chemical petrology from AGU and in volcanology from IAVCEI, but the current recognition by GSA has to be my favorite.  A life of geologic mapping has been a wonderful privilege.  That the award is joint with Judy is a career-capping joy.

Modern Geologic Mapping establishes a time-stratigraphic record.  Geologic maps provide the primary information upon which understanding magmatic, glacial, tectonic, and landscape evolution depends.  Time-volume-compositional records of geologic and eruptive histories provide the ground truth that confers plausibility on topical petrology and geophysical interpretations.  Integral to our mapping have been compositional, structural, and geochronologic data—in abundance—which have the capacity to transform colorful wallpaper into the fundamental documents that inform a plurality of derivative research.  For our work, USGS chemical and dating support was indispensable, notably our collaboration with Marvin Lanphere and Andy Calvert.  And USGS leaders Dallas Peck, Paul Bateman, Bob Coleman, Patrick Muffler, and Bob Christiansen played key roles in encouraging our initiative and supporting our freedom to investigate previously near-blank spots on pan-american maps.

Over the course of four decades, important contributions to our field investigations were made by Gail Mahood, Anita Grunder, Terry Keith, Tina Neal, Michelle Coombs, Tracey Felger, Maura Hanning, Vicki McConnell, Ellen Lougee, Peggy Bruggman, Kari Cooper, Patty Weston, Cynthia Gardner, and Juliet Ryan-Davis.  All 14 have established productive professional careers.  There’s been no shortage of STEM-talented outdoorsy women during my half-century career.  I hope Florence Bascom would have smiled.  I gratefully add Pirzio Godoy, Bob Drake, Brad Singer, John Eichelberger, and Dave Tucker.

I began field exploration of the hills, rivers and lakes of Dedham, Massachusetts, when I was five, and my mother (though no doubt apprehensive) had the intuition to let me go.  At 7-years-old, I charted much of the low-tide shoreline of Belvedere Island, California.  At 8, I made my first pencil-on-paper map—along Muddy River to the Fenway, from Brookline Village to Fenway Park.  I’ve been part of Red Sox Nation ever since. 

My first quarter-century was bicoastal, alternating between the Boston and San Francisco Bay Areas, the most consistently progressive parts of our contentious republic.  My undergraduate advisor, Harry Blackmore Whittington, raised my sights and offered me a thesis project on the Burgess Shale, but I wasn’t ready for an indoor life in the lab.  Harvard sent me around the world on a travelling fellowship, and that diverted me into grad school in international affairs, but the bitterness of Vietnam saved me from such a career path.  Several seasons as a National Park Service naturalist brought me back to geology, and I gratefully acknowledge as key role models: Jim McAllister, Charlie Hunt, Mitch Reynolds, and Clyde Wahrhaftig, each important in confirming my field orientation.  Nancy Williams first convinced me, then a competitive long-distance runner, to put on long pants, heavy-duty boots, and a Kelty pack.  And to Ian Carmichael and Berkeley Geology my debt is immeasurable, for transforming me from experiential adventurer to research geologist.  Later fieldwork with Colin Wilson and Bruce Houghton expanded our perspectives and skill sets, imparting to us as much as Judy and I ever learned at university.

My beloved spouse of 40 years, Professor Gail Mahood, though busy with her own field projects, joined us at Katmai, Mount Adams, Long Valley, and in Chile.  And I joined her field projects at Pantelleria and La Primavera.  Observing her long career has made me poignantly aware of the forbearance, grit, and endurance demanded of female academic geologists, still today, in navigating the bumpy path pioneered by Florence Bascom.  Some men try to help clear the path, but many are so self-absorbed that they are oblivious to being stones in the road.

My comrade Judy started as a field assistant, but she immediately became the logistical leader and, with time and experience, a full scientific partner.  In later decades, she has taken the lead in many of our investigations.  I’ve always tended toward being a loner and was never much of an organizer, so the two best decisions I ever made were joining the USGS and hiring Judy.  Whatever I’ve accomplished could not have been done without them both.