2022 Structural Geology & Tectonics Career Contribution Award

Presented to Peter Molnar

Peter Molnar

Peter Molnar
Geological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Colorado


Citation by Elizabeth Schermer

We are honored to present Peter Molnar the Career Contribution award of the SGT division of GSA, and heartbroken to have to present this award posthumously. Peter made unparalleled contributions to tectonics for more than 50 years, starting from the early days of plate tectonics. His research in seismology, geodynamic modeling, geomorphology, structural geology, paleontology, and climate all related to tectonics. Peter especially enjoyed doing field work and valued the importance of field data to constrain tectonic models. Together with students and colleagues at MIT, the University of Colorado, and around the world, Peter made contributions to our fundamental knowledge of plate tectonics, continental tectonics, and the tectonics-climate connection. He further contributed to our community through his mentoring of students from the US and abroad and who continue this research.

Peter began research on central Asian tectonics in the mid-70’s as part of a greater passion to understand continental deformation. Peter always focused on the big questions and looked for simple physical explanations, asking fundamental questions such as: how did the topography and lithospheric structure in the Himalayas and Tibet develop?, why are Tibet and the central Andes so high and flat?, and when and how did they reach their present elevations? How can we distinguish a tectonic signal from a climatic one? Subsequent publications focused on surface uplift, the paleoaltimetry data that constrain the timing and magnitude of uplift, and geophysical constraints on the kinematics and rates of deformation from the surface to the deep lithosphere beneath Asia. The 1993 Reviews of Geophysics article by Molnar, England, and Martinod, whose title “Mantle dynamics, uplift of the Tibetan Plateau, and the Indian monsoon” indicates Peter’s range of interconnected interests, resulted in a new and still ongoing debate on the timing and cause of uplift of Tibet. Peter’s early publications are still highly cited and are used to teach the current generation of university students, and his recent publications have broken new ground.

Peter’s work touched the field of structural geology in fundamental ways. In the early days of plate tectonics, Peter recognized the important differences between continental and oceanic lithosphere, and related experimental rock mechanics results to mountain-building. His 1988 Nature paper “Continental Tectonics in the Aftermath of Plate Tectonics”, showed very clearly how and why plates with continental and oceanic crust behave differently, bridging concepts from rheology and structural geology to global tectonics, and from plate kinematics to dynamics.

Peter’s expertise spanned an enormous range of topics, space, and time-scales, from Archaean sea level to the elevation of modern orogenic plateaus, and from the lower mantle to the top of the highest peaks. With the 1990 Nature article “Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg?”with coauthor Philip England it could be argued that he spurred a new research direction in SGT, that of the interactions between tectonics and climate, and two generations of SGT researchers have followed in these footsteps.

Peter developed strong collaborative relationships with scientists from around the world. He committed time to learning about the culture and language of the places he traveled for science. These global colleagues were welcomed by Peter and his beloved wife Sara to their home in the mountains of Colorado where they were treated to constant lively scientific discussions over food and drink.

Peter was a role model and inspiration for many, not only for his approach to science, but also for being kind and supportive, especially to younger colleagues. We are delighted that SGT has chosen Peter Molnar as the recipient of this year’s Career Contribution award. He will be greatly missed by all in our community.