Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Bruce Molnia

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This is the seventh in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS. 

Bruce reminds me of the “Energizer BunnyTM!” He keeps on going and keeps on giving. In his over 50-year scientific career he has made many contributions to the broader science community and to advancing the USGS mission and he’s still contributing! Currently Bruce is researching glaciers and other changing landscapes using various remote sensing platforms including those from the intelligence community and military. Bruce’s long career and work throughout the broad Federal science community has left him with a full Rolodex of contacts. He has maintained communications with world renown scientists several of whom he recently recruited to give presentations at this fall’s American Geophysical Union conference where he organized a Union Session which will also feature USGS Director Jim Reilly and several of our current scientists. We appreciate Bruce and his work! 

Paul M. Young 
Director, National Civil Applications Center 

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Bruce Molnia standing at the Geographic South Pole

In 1987, while detailed to the National Research Council’s Polar Research Board, I traveled to Antarctica. This photograph of me standing at the Geographic South Pole was taken by my colleague Paul Dalrymple, who first worked in Antarctica in 1957.

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place? 

Many things in my early career prepared me for and pointed me toward a career at the USGS. In 1965, I took time off from my undergraduate geology studies at Harpur College (now Binghamton University) and worked at Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Observatory as a Marine Geophysical Technician. I went to Antarctica on the icebreaker Eltanin to collect marine seismic data. Following graduation, I returned to Lamont and went on an around the world research cruise on RV Conrad to collect gravity data and bottom photography. Both my masters and Ph.D. research were focused on marine geology and geophysics. When I was an undergraduate, I considered two tracks: teaching or doing research. I really wanted to work for the USGS.  In 1971, nearing the completion of my Ph.D. I applied for every government and academic marine science vacancy I could find. I was unsuccessful in finding a marine research position and took a sabbatical-replacement teaching position at Amherst College. In 1973, I was hired by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the Geological Oceanographer in BLM’s Los Angeles-based Pacific Outer Continental Shelf Office.  Back then the Bureau of Energy and Ocean Management (BOEM) nor its predecessor the Minerals Management Service existed, so BLM handled all of the offshore leasing. There I worked closely with USGS Conservation Division geologists and the USGS Branch of Pacific Marine Geology (PMG) marine scientists on offshore California and Alaska oil and gas environmental hazard assessments. In Spring 1974, a vacancy opened at PMG and I was offered the position. 

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?  

I retired with 42+ years of service. I have been an Emeritus since June 2019. 

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?  

I was the Senior Science Advisor for National Civil Applications in the National Civil Applications Center (NCAC). As an Emeritus, I continue in this capacity. 

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus? 

The NCAC is part of The National Land Imaging (NLI) Program. NCAC is unique to the USGS. It is the center where classified activities are carried out, including research using Department of Defense applications. There are two locations: Reston and the Lakewood Federal Center in Colorado. 

Bruce Molnia documenting rapid glacier change in Prince William Sound

In 2008, I was documenting rapid glacier change in Prince William Sound. In this picture taken by USGS videographer Don Becker, I am crossing a small outlet stream discharging from Serpentine Glacier. All field party members were required to successfully complete USGS firearms safety and bear behavior training.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS?  

I had a very non-traditional USGS career. I am very proud of the numerous diverse directions that my career followed. Originally, I was hired to evaluate areas on the Eastern Gulf of Alaska Continental Shelf that were being considered for offshore oil and gas leasing. Each three-mile-by-three-mile lease track had to be evaluated as to the presence of potential environmental hazards (slumping, sliding, liquefaction, active faulting, biogenic and thermogenic gas instability, unique biological conditions, etc.) and a recommendation provided to the director as to whether it could safely be developed. The data we collected to make these evaluations were  later available for more-traditional scientific analysis and led to numerous peer-reviewed publications.  

Twice, I was detailed to other entities. First in 1986 to the National Research Council’s Polar Research Board, where I led a geophysical delegation to the Russian Academy of Sciences; and then in 1998 to the House of Representatives, where during the 106th and 107th Congresses, I was a Congressional Fellow responsible for organizing and operating  the House Oceans Caucus.  

Between 1993 and 1997, as a USGS representative to the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, I organized and chaired three international workshops focused on Arctic pollution, contamination, and radioactive waste disposal.  

A highlight of my research career was authoring what I consider to be my magnum opus, USGS Professional Paper 1386K, Glaciers of Alaska, a 550-page chapter of the Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World.  

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus?

 Becoming an Emeritus was a no brainer. I had exhausted all of my USGS employment opportunities and I wanted to continue to be involved in the NCAC’s activities, especially the Global Fiducials Program. The only opportunity that existed to continue was to volunteer as an Emeritus. So, I did.  

Bruce Molnia standing on Triangle Island in Queen Inlet

In September 2003, I was funded by the U.S. National Park Service to document glacier change in Glacier Bay National Park. In this photograph taken by my colleague Austin Post, I am standing on Triangle Island in Queen Inlet, holding a photograph taken from the same location in 1906 by USGS geologist Charles W. Wright. In the ensuing 97 years, Carroll Glacier retreated more than 2 km and approximately 200 m of sediment was deposited in the fiord.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future? 

Currently, my primary activity is related to the 2020 Fall AGU Meeting. In April, I prepared and submitted a session proposal for an AGU Union Session titled: Global Fiducials Program Imagery: A Cold War Legacy. 

Following the proposal’s acceptance in June, I contacted potential speakers and assisted them in topic selection and abstract preparation. Most recently, I organized the session and provided AGU with the final details. Speakers include Director Reilly, former National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, USGS scientists Kim Angeli and John Jones, and NCAC volunteer Shawn Dilles.  

I am also constantly working with new imagery to compare changes over time. For instance, Steller Glacier, the western part of Bering Glacier’s piedmont lobe, has thinned so much in the past few decades that in 2014, the surface elevation of its terminus ice-marginal lake dropped below the lip of its former bedrock outlet channel. Since 2015, it has annually drained sub-glacially, disgorging more than a half cubic kilometer of water into another ice-marginal lake located more than six kilometers to the southwest. Each flood event inundates up to 200 square kilometers of the adjacent coastal foreland before draining into the Gulf of Alaska.   

I am also monitoring a barrier island in Louisiana that is rapidly losing land due to sea level rise and intensive storm activity. 

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?  

The camaraderie and the interaction with a group of like-minded people that share similar interests. Being an Emeritus permits me to remain connected to the USGS community and the NCAC. It allows me to participate in leading edge science in an environment that is both mentally challenging and stimulating. I have access to exploitation tools and multiple streams of remotely sensed imagery that allows me to document rapidly changing dynamic environments. I am able to participate in interagency committees with peers from most of the other federal  science agencies and activities. It would be impossible to do this in any other way. 

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus?  

I am an adjunct faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Delta State University in Mississippi. There, I communicate with students and respond to requests for assistance and support.  With respect to outreach, I actively participate in the activities of the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). I am a member of the USGIF’s Certification Governance Board that works on developing standards for practitioners so companies can recruit capabilities based on levels of experience. I am also a participant in several of their geospatial discussion groups. Additionally, I serve on the Editorial Board of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s journal Geospatial Intelligence Research.  

Bruce Molnia standing in front of the opening of a small ice cave

For more than 35 years, I was associated with the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP). This 2002 photograph of me standing in front of the opening of a small ice cave was taken by JIRP leader Maynard M. Miller.

What are/were the most important decisions you made as a research scientist for your organization?  

As Chief Scientist of Environmental Studies of the Eastern Gulf of Alaska and North Aleutian Shelf Projects (1974-1982), I planned, managed, participated in, and analyzed results from marine geological and geophysical research projects and cruises / field studies in the Gulf of Alaska, Bristol Bay, and Alaskan coastal zone environments. There, my most important decisions were in evaluating which offshore lease tracts could be offered for leasing and then passing the recommendations to the USGS Director.

As USGS Chief of International Polar Programs (1987-2002), I organized and chaired three international workshops dealing with Arctic pollution, which resulted in Russia providing information on radioactive waste that they had dumped in Arctic marginal seas (1993-1997). There, my most important decisions were in organizing the workshops, preparing three proceedings volumes for publication, and testifying before the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee on Arctic pollution.

As an IPA detailee and Congressional Fellow, I organized and oversaw the operations of the US House of Representatives Ocean Caucus to establish policy and provide information to Congress about critical ocean issues including national security, international borders, sustainable fisheries, Law of the Sea, and oceanographic research (1998-2002). There, my most important decisions were involved with organizing House Oceans Week and working with the Presidential Oceans Commission.

While I was the Executive Director of the Civil Applications Committee, I was invited to serve as a subject matter expert and workshop convener for a Department of State bilateral multi-year agreement with the Chilean Government on glacier melting, water resources, and climate change (2011-2015). There, my most important decisions were related to identifying technologies that could be shared with bilateral participants that could document rates of Chilean glacier melting and movement.

While serving as the Senior Science Advisor for the National Civil Applications Center (2013-present), I worked diligently to maintain the existence of the Global Fiducials Program and Global Fiducials Library. There, my most important decisions were related to keeping Global Fiducials activities alive and most recently, organizing an AGU Union Session titled: Global Fiducials Program Imagery: A Cold War Legacy, which will be held at the Fall 2020 AGU Meeting and to promote the community-wide use of Global Fiducials Imagery.

Which one thing do you wish you would have done differently during your career?  

I wish that I would have done a more comprehensive job of documenting and recording the results of my day-to-day activities, my thoughts, and my interactions. This includes systematic note taking and better communication and information sharing with cooperators. Intensive daily notetaking would have provided an information baseline for future reinspection. It would have helped in rekindling ideas that had a lack of action and helped follow through with individuals that I have interacted through my career. 

If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Make sure you take and master as many math classes as you can so that you are proficient in calculus, algebra, statistics, and geometry.   

If you could travel on a time machine to any era in time, what would it be and why?  

As a person with a very strong interest in the evolution of Earth’s landscapes, I would travel back in time about 20,000 years to the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum. I would want to see glaciers covering what are now New York City and Seattle, as well as much of northern North America. I would want to see the impacts of sea level lowered by more than 100 m, as compared to today. I would once-and-for-all answer the question: Was North America inhabited by Homo sapiens prior to about 12,000 year BP?  

Bruce Molnia near the terminus of Coxe Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska

Bruce Molnia preparing to step ashore from a small inflatable boat near the terminus of Coxe Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 2008.

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?  

Domestically, I last traveled to Albuquerque, NM in February 2020 to attend a three-day meeting of the Earth Science External Review Board at Sandia National Laboratory. Internationally, in December 2019 and January 2020, I traveled to Patagonia, the Falkland Islands, the Island of South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula.   

I haven’t been to the Antarctic Peninsula since the 1960s when I was on the icebreaker Eltanin. This was the first time I was onshore on the northern part of the Peninsula. Sailing through the fiords and channels of the Antarctic Peninsula provided me with the opportunity to take a close look at the rapidly melting and retreating tidewater glaciers that cover most of the land surface. I took 10,000 photographs. One afternoon while we were sailing in the Scotia Sea near Shag Rocks we saw about 40 whales. They were swimming around and  under the ship. Many surfaced from right below us.  There is a bluff named after me (on the Arctic peninsula), I have a strong personal connection to Antarctica. I am the namesake for “Molnia’s Bluff,” a massive bedrock outcrop in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys that rises to an elevation of about 1,750 feet. I was honored to have it named for me by the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names in 2005. I wondered, based on my career involvement with glaciers, why a bluff and not a glacier? I finally rationalized that with ongoing climate change, a Molnia Glacier would eventually melt away, but Molnia Bluff would tower over whatever elevation the expanded Ross Sea would reach. Also, I have to admit, I did spend much of my career bluffing! 

If you could invite any three people, living or not, to dinner who would it be and why?  

I would invite John Muir, Sir Francis Drake, and a Siberian native who lived sometime between ~12,000 and ~20,000 years ago and traveled from Asia by boat or on-foot to inhabit and colonize North America. Each was a pioneer explorer who accomplished something unique. I would talk with Muir about his role in formulating glacier science, and how he was so insightful and accurate in his interpretation of Alaskan and Californian landscapes. I would talk with Drake about his 1577-1580 single expedition circumnavigation of the world, especially his voyage along the West Coast of North America. I would talk with the Siberian native about how and why he or she successfully traveled to North America. 

What was the last (or favorite) book you read?  

I really enjoy mystery novels. One of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly, has written 22 Harry Bosch novels, beginning in 1992. Although I previously had read many of them, in July, I began to reread the Harry Bosch novels in sequential order, beginning with The Black Echo. To date, I am about halfway through the series, having read more than 4,000 pages. I just started The Closers, the eleventh novel in the series. Amazon Prime has streamed six seasons of a series called Bosch, based on the novels. Many of the plot themes talk about race and social injustice, which is very fitting for the times.  

What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken? 

In summer 1965, as a naive 19-year-old undergraduate, I went to Antarctica as a Marine Geophysical Technician on USNS Eltanin (TAGOR-8). Prior to that trip, I really had no firm idea about what was involved in performing a scientific study or what type of career I wanted to pursue. This was my first introduction to expedition science. As a result of my participation, I decided to go to graduate school in marine geology and geophysics and to begin a career in marine science and research. With slight detours, I have continued following this path for the past 55 years. 

Bruce Molnia (center) discussing tomorrow's plans in a temporary field shelter at Bering Glacier, Alaska in 2010

Bruce Molnia (center) and Kim Angeli, USGS NCAP (left) discuss tomorrow's plans in a temporary field shelter at Bering Glacier, Alaska in 2010.

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows? 

As someone who has retired twice in the past 4½ years, my advice would be: Make sure you make as much time available as you can for your family;  Make sure you continually challenge yourself mentally;  Start or continue exercising and make sure that you set goals and meet them;  Stay connected to friends and former co-workers; and  Enjoy life – you are retired!   

How are you spending your time during the pandemic?  

Aside from assisting my wife Mary with day-to-day chores and responsibilities around the house, playing with my two Reston-based youngest grandkids, working on my AGU Union session, planning 2021 field work, organizing photographs taken on my December-January travels, working on a journal article/book detailing my ongoing repeat photography study of Alaskan glaciers (I have collected about 3,000 Alaskan glacier historical photos from libraries and other archives and revisited many locations from which those photos were made. To date, I have produced about 125 historic and modern pairs, looking at imagery of rapidly changing glaciers and coastlines, binge watching new series on television, and reading for personal enjoyment, other than that I have been just lying around the house.