Donald Swanson

Donald Swanson
U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

2016 Distinguished Geologic Career Award (MGPV Division)

Presented to Donald Swanson

Citation by Michael P. Poland And Bruce F. Houghton

If you looked up “field volcanologist” in the dictionary, you might find a photo of Don Swanson. His approach to understanding how volcanoes work is quintessentially scientific—that is, based on systematic observation, measurement, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Throughout his career, Don has steadfastly applied this methodology to address fundamental and often controversial global issues in volcanology. At the same time, Don’s research crosses disciplines with ease, developing models that explain a diversity of observations and that stand the test of time.

Don’s contributions include a number of basic insights into the science of volcanology, any one of which would be career-defining for most scientists. His work on Kīlauea’s Mauna Ulu eruption (1969–74) stands out as a masterpiece which used careful field observation to document numerous new eruptive behaviors and revolutionized ideas of magma supply and lava flow emplacement. Don then turned his attention to the Columbia River Basalts, where he employed field mapping, petrology, and paleomagnetic studies to develop the first comprehensive stratigraphy for any flood basalt province in the world.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Don’s work shifted to the Cascade Range. At Mount St. Helens, he accurately predicted over a dozen episodes of exogeneous lava dome growth based on multidisciplinary observational datasets. In addition, he mapped much of the southern Washington Cascades, recognizing new volcanoes and intrusions and finding innovative science where other workers thought there was nothing. For the past two decades, Don has refocused his energy on Hawaiʻi, where his detailed stratigraphic mapping, dating, and eruption modeling have led to a paradigm shift demonstrating that Kīlauea is just as explosive as it is effusive, and linking Kīlauea’s explosive deposits with Hawaiian oral traditions (feeding his own love of language and literature).

As if this outstanding research resume weren’t enough, Don has demonstrated a commitment to training and outreach. Many professional volcanologists today were inspired by a field trip with Don, perhaps into the crater at Mount St. Helens or examining the structure and stratigraphy of Kīlauea. Don was also an early force behind the use of the Internet to spread volcanological information, including personal daily updates of activity at Kīlauea that were followed avidly by volcanophiles worldwide. It is therefore appropriate that Don was recently honored with the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2015 Eugene M. Shoemaker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Communications.

We are pleased to recognize Don Swanson as the recipient of the 2016 Distinguished Geologic Career Award from the Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology, & Volcanology Division of GSA—a well-deserved honor that appropriately acknowledges Don’s creativity, commitment, and contributions to volcano science.

top2016 Distinguished Geologic Career Award (MGPV Division) — Response by Donald Swanson

Many thanks to Mike Poland for the embarrassingly generous citation, and to Mike and Bruce Houghton for nominating me for this award. That all takes a lot of work. Sorry, guys!

This is a time for reflection, even nostalgia, as I look back on a career that began in the Sputnik era. Al Schneider scribbled a note on the back of an exam paper during my junior year at Washington State College, urging me to apply to several grad schools, including Johns Hopkins. There I fell under the spell of Aaron Waters and met graduate students who have been colleagues ever since: Dick Fiske, Hans-Ulrich Schmincke, and Tom Wright. Dick’s wife, Pat, suggested that I apply for the NATO postdoc that took me to Germany, and I worked with Hans in the Canary Islands on rheoignimbrites. And, it was Tom and Dick, then at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, who urged me, a fledgling mentored by George W. Walker at the USGS in Menlo Park, to transfer to HVO. There, during a whirlwind 3.5 years, I developed interests in Kīlauea that remain to this day.

For much of the ‘70s, Tom and I spent several months each year putting thousands of miles on my Land Cruiser, crisscrossing the Columbia Plateau trying to make sense of the remarkably continuous basalt stratigraphy. At this time, Peter Hooper was establishing an XRF facility at Washington State University and attracting good students, such as Vic Camp and Steve Reidel, to work on the basalt. We informally combined forces to produce a first cut of the stratigraphy for the entire province that forms the basis for today’s improved and expanded regional picture.

I grew up near Mount St. Helens, and Hans and I climbed it in 1963. Its unrest and ultimate eruption in 1980 proved irresistible, and I joined the group that morphed into the Cascades Volcano Observatory. Improbably, I owe my life to the recipient of the 2013 MGVP Distinguished Geologic Career Award, Gerhard Wörner. I was hosting him as a visiting grad student (of Hans) and asked Dave Johnston to spend the night of May 17 at the Coldwater 2 observation post; I planned to replace Dave the next morning after Gerd left, but the eruption tragically intervened. Dave’s death remains a powerful stimulant for trying to understand volcanoes better. St. Helens attracted outstanding young scientists—Dan Dzurisin, Kathy Cashman, and Bill Chadwick among them—and I fed off their enthusiasm and ideas.

As the eruption waned, I looked toward the surrounding Tertiary Cascades as a huge area that needed field study. In 1990 I transferred to the USGS office at the University of Washington to be around students and faculty interested in Tertiary problems. Geologic maps of nine 7.5-minute quads resulted from what I consider to be my best field work. One map remains unpublished, and I hope that the Goat Rocks volcano gets its just due with the research under way by Kellie Wall and Anita Grunder.

Dick Fiske suggested that I apply for the position of scientist-in-charge at HVO, Bob Tilling selected me, and my recently deceased wife, Barbara, and I made our final career move in late 1996. I followed in the SIC footsteps of Tom Wright and Dave Clague, last year’s MGVP Distinguished Career Award recipient. I joined forces with Dick and Tim Rose of the Smithsonian to study Kīlauea’s explosive past, and this study accelerated when Bruce Houghton moved to the University of Hawaiʻi.

The USGS gave me freedom to pursue what I wanted. Now, as my career winds down, I’m frantically trying to pay back that virtual IOU by completing work on the explosive cyclic history of Kīlauea. This is serious business, because of both its intrinsic interest and its societal importance in terms of hazards and the economic consequences of a frequently exploding Kīlauea.

Thank you all for the great honor, and a special thanks to my Hopkins friends who, over the past 56 years, have lifted me onto their shoulders.