A True Gentleman and World-Class Geoscientist: Monty Allen Hampton, 1941–2019

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Modified from the Half Moon Bay Review obituary and expanded with text from email tributes sent by Monty’s colleagues.

A man standing on the deck of a ship holds a core sample taken from the ocean floor.

Monty Hampton hams it up, hugging a seafloor core sample collected from the area of an underwater landslide off the New Zealand coast.

(Public domain.)

This article is part of the June-July 2020 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

Monty Allen Hampton, formerly a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, passed away peacefully on December 15, 2019. It was a sunny afternoon at his home overlooking the ocean. He was surrounded by family and friends at the end of a courageous battle with cancer.

Monty was born in Glendale, California, on September 22, 1941. He attended schools in Burbank and Lancaster, California. The first in his family to go to college, he received a B.S. in geology in 1966 from Los Angeles State College and a Ph.D. in geology in 1970 from Stanford University.

After earning his Ph.D., Monty accepted a teaching position at the University of Rhode Island, bringing in National Science Foundation grants to the geology department. One of Monty’s students would eventually follow him to the USGS. Bill Schwab, now a retired USGS research geophysicist, writes: “I first met Monty in 1973 at the University of Rhode Island, where he taught a killer course in sedimentology. Monty asked me to help him with a mass flow mechanics project, and we spent months working with a circular flume covered with muck. Monty became especially good at leaving muddy white footprints of kaolinite all over the department.”

In 1974, Monty left the university to take a job with the USGS in Menlo Park, California. This began his 28-year-long career with the Branch of Pacific and Arctic Marine Geology, now the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. “I was part of the team that interviewed Monty for his position,” recalls retired USGS research geologist Ed Clifton, “and I felt we were very lucky when he agreed to join a growing team of ‘mudders.’ I will always think of him as an iron man and an excellent scientist. It was his offhand comment many years ago that led me to comprehend the processes that created the conglomerates at Point Lobos.” (Ed is highly regarded for deciphering those processes, which include submarine sediment gravity flows, a topic in which Monty was a widely recognized expert.)

Two geologist chums

Research geologists Michael Torresan (left) and Monty Hampton enjoy cigarillos after a long day in the field.

(Public domain.)

As a USGS scientist, Monty led numerous projects, and his research in sediment deposition and landslides took him all over the world. His first field area was in the western Gulf of Alaska (Cook Inlet, Shelikof Strait, and the continental shelf around Kodiak Island). Retired USGS research geologist Mike Torresan recalls: “In early 1976, Monty and Arnold Bouma (with some help from Bob Orlando) hired a young ‘wannabe’ marine geologist and brought me to Alaska, where I started learning the trade aboard the research vessel (R/V) Sea Sounder. Monty guided me, counseled me, and helped shape who I am.” Monty would return many times to Alaska, studying sediment distribution on the continental shelf and landslide deposits on the shelf and upper continental slope of the Gulf of Alaska, Shelikof Strait, and Bering Sea.

One research cruise took Monty to Antarctica, where he and other USGS scientists collected seismic-reflection data to image the transition between continental crust and oceanic crust deep beneath the seafloor off Wilkes Land. “I shared a month on the R/V S.P. Lee with Monty,” recalls retired USGS research geologist Steve Eittreim, “with the spectacle of the Antarctic coast beyond the rail. We had lots of adventures, including the 2-knot speeds we made across the roaring ‘50s to get to the field area.” (Just before the trip to Antarctica from New Zealand, Monty collaborated with Keith Lewis, a New Zealand geologist, to map and take core samples of a landslide off New Zealand.)

A group of ten or more people standing on the deck of a ship wearing cold-weather gear, all smile for the camera.

USGS scientists on board research vessel S.P. Lee, off Antarctica in 1984. They collected seismic-reflection data to image the transition between continental crust and oceanic crust deep beneath the seafloor off Wilkes Land.

(Public domain.)

In the central Pacific Ocean and off the U.S. West Coast, Monty took part in an ambitious project to map the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone—the seafloor from U.S. coasts out 200 nautical miles. The scientists called the project “GLORIA” after the long-range sidescan-sonar mapping system they used, which was owned and operated by colleagues at the United Kingdom’s Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, or IOS (now part of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton). Retired USGS research geologist Herman Karl recalls being a co-chief with Monty on a 1984 GLORIA cruise and later spending several weeks with him at IOS. “We both were early risers,” Herman remembers, “and the gates to the institute did not open until 8 a.m. as I recall. We had to adjust our habits. It was easier to adjust to the two-pint lunches!”

In the early 1990’s, Monty and Mike Torresan conducted fieldwork in Mamala Bay, Oahu, Hawai‘i to map the distribution of both natural sediment on the bay floor and material that had been placed there after being dredged from Honolulu and Pearl Harbors. Their findings would support U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency programs to regulate and monitor the discharge of dredged materials. Later work around Hawai‘i included mapping sand deposits that were trapped on wave-cut terraces and considered to be possible resources for replenishing eroded beaches. 

A group of men and women stand together, posing for a photograph and smiling, holding certificates.

Award recipients: Broad smiles celebrate the end of a decade of diligent, sometimes exhausting work on the hazardous-waste lawsuit "United States, et al., v. Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, et al." In this photo, Ellen Mahan (second from right, representing Acting Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Department of Justice) and Steve O'Rourke (far right, lead Department of Justice attorney in the trial) present Department of Justice Certificates of Commendation to USGS scientists who contributed to the lawsuit. The awards were presented in San Francisco on July 10th, 2001. From left to right are Brian Edwards, Florence Wong, Chris Sherwood, Marlene Noble, Monty Hampton, Homa Lee, Mahan, and O'Rourke.

Read the whole Sound Waves newsletter article from August 2001.

Additional USGS work took Monty as far away as Spain and as close to home as California, where he studied sediments, cliff erosion, seafloor pollution, and landslides along much of the state’s coast. About coastal erosion on the central coast, recalls Ed Clifton, Monty made the powerful, perceptive, and succinct statement: “The sand will come back. The cliffs will not.” In 2001, Monty and a group of colleagues were recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice for describing the nature and extent of sediments contaminated by DDT discharge off the Palos Verdes Peninsula in southern California.

In the midst of all his scientific activities, Monty served as the Branch Chief from 1984–1986. In this management position, he traveled extensively to promote cooperative research with other countries, and he oversaw branch research and projects.

Monty retired in 2002 and served as a scientist emeritus until 2016. During that time, he volunteered on scientific cruises, finished publications on past research, and worked with colleagues in the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. One of those colleagues was retired USGS geophysicist Dave Cacchione. “Monty and I did our last research together with Gary Greene on sand waves in San Juan Channel,” recalls Dave. “The science was quite interesting, but the camaraderie and laughter were the essential joys. We spent five trips to the San Juans with Karen and Monty over the many years of that work. His smile, humor, and gentle caring will live forever in my heart.”

Throughout his life, Monty was active in all types of sports. In college he ran track and pole vaulted. He acquired a love for surfing, rock climbing, hiking, skiing, wind surfing, and boogie boarding. He ran several marathons and enjoyed biking and roller blading in later years. Monty enjoyed playing his guitar and listening to blues music. He also experimented with watercolor painting.

Two smiling men stand together, hands in pockets.

Geologist Monty Hampton (left) and geophysicist Dave Cacchione collaborated on research in the San Juan Islands in northwestern Washington.

(Public domain.)

In retirement, Monty loved traveling with Karen, his wife of 50 years, and looked forward to spending time with his five grandchildren. He was a member of the Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Surfrider Foundation, the Pescadero Conservation Alliance (PCA), and the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club. He gave many talks on coastal geology for various organizations.

Friends and family describe Monty as kind, honest, and intelligent, a real warrior during his illness and a humorous person—a true gentleman devoted to his wife and daughters.

Group of family photos.

Clockwise from upper left: Monty Hampton with wife, Karen on a ski trip; Monty and Karen on San Francisco Bay; Monty with his two daughters; Monty with one of his many grandchildren.

(Public domain.)