Remembering Bruce Richmond

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We pay tribute to friend and colleague Bruce Richmond, who passed away in May surrounded by his family near his home in Las Lomas, CA. A group of us put together this remembrance of Bruce, AKA “BR.”

A man stands amidst mounds of icy snow in the sun, smiling for the camera, wearing heavy cold-weather gear.

BR near Barter Island on the North Slope of Alaska.

This article is part of the August-September 2020 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

USGS research geologist Bruce Richmond, AKA “BR,” of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, passed away on Friday, May 29, 2020—less than 5 months following his January 3 retirement. Bruce led a full and balanced life that involved both family and science, and this brought him and those around him much happiness. He had a successful and productive career working for the USGS for 42 years. His contributions to geology and to our community affect many of us. Those of us who knew Bruce will have fond memories of his contagious enthusiasm and love for his research. We also knew him as a warm-hearted, loving, and devoted father and husband. Bruce was always full of pride and great stories of each of his children.   

Bruce's love of the ocean was constant. He had a passion for surfing, kayaking, diving, and fishing, and this passion led him into and carried him through a wonderful career.

A man stands near a monitor that is showing a video in which he is talking.

At the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, there is an exhibit on the 1975 Halapē tsunami. There, the exhibit includes a video featuring BR himself, talking about the science behind the tsunami.

Bruce started at the USGS in 1978 as a Physical Science Technician in the East Palo Alto, California. There he worked for Ed Clifton in the Branch of Arctic-Pacific Geology Office, analyzing data on sedimentary structures of intertidal mudflats. He came to the USGS with a M.Sc. from University of Waikato, New Zealand, and completed his Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz while working at the USGS. Throughout his career, his passion to understand coastal geology led him to study topics ranging from sedimentology of sand dunes and beaches to the use of geology in assessing coastal hazards. This research took him to dozens of countries spanning low-latitude carbonate Pacific Islands to high-latitude permafrost Arctic coastlines. Those of us who worked with Bruce know how his collaborative style, keen sense of observation, geologic intuition, and good nature made it easy to work with him and led to many scientific advances.

Bruce initiated and successfully led studies documenting long-term chronic coastal change and important studies of the modern and geologic record of catastrophic tsunami and hurricane inundation. He spent 4 years in the late 1980s at the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) in Fiji, conducting research on marine minerals, aggregates, shoreline change, and coastal stability for island member countries. Fiji is where he met his wife, Aitu. Later, in a very successful collaboration with Chip Fletcher at the University of Hawaiʻi, he co-led the crafting of the Hawaiʻi Coastal Hazards Atlas that is used by many, including the State of Hawaiʻi in planning for future growth, safety, and protection. Recently, he worked with multidisciplinary teams in the Arctic to develop novel approaches to understanding shoreline change processes where permafrost bluffs are thawing and eroding at accelerated rates and threatening native villages and critical Arctic habitat. Some of his many contributions to tsunami research include detailed descriptions of the impacts of recent tsunamis in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Chile, Samoa, and Japan; advancing the interpretation of boulders in detecting past tsunamis; and paleotsunami studies in California and Hawaiʻi that are integral to updating tsunami hazard assessments. Bruce was also particularly invested in mentoring and providing research opportunities to young scientists around the world. Recent heartfelt comments from his colleagues at the USGS and the international tsunami community attest to Bruce’s worldwide impact on the scientific community. Some of those comments are included here.

Two separate photos of a man on a ship with icebergs in background, he is sunbathing in one photo.

BR, the quintessential California surfer dude and jokester, pretends to get in some sunbathing while out on a research cruise offshore of Wilkes Land, eastern Antarctica, collecting geophysical data in December 1983. He's shown wearing more appropriate attire at right!

Everyone will remember Bruce not only for his contributions to science but also as a true friend with an aloha spirit, a laid-back way, and an infectious and at times mischievous sense of humor. Bruce had a wonderful way of enjoying life by always looking at the positive, and he shared that with everyone.

We will miss Bruce.

Ed Clifton—“He and I had a delightful few weeks in the South Pacific as part of the SOPAC program in the mid 80's, teaching marine geology to selected locals on Majuro and Chuuk. Bruce had a marvelous way of interacting with the class members. We had some marvelous scuba dives while we were there. The most memorable was into Chuuk Lagoon, where we swam thorough the lower decks of a sunken Japanese aircraft carrier in which the Zeroes were still lined up.

“Bruce had a mischievous streak. On Chuuk, we found a SOPAC van the Branch maintained on the island. It may to this day bear a spray-painted message, ‘For a good time, Call Monty [Hampton, the Branch Chief at the time] (the branch office telephone number).’ I don’t know if Monty got any phone calls as a result.”

Two close friends stand together, smiling for the camera, they are both wearing hawaiian shirts in front of a leafy backdrop.

USGS geologists and close friends BR, left, with Michael Torresan, at Mike's retirement party. BR and Mike were friends and colleagues for 42 years, working together at the same USGS science center for their entire careers. Photo by Laura Torresan, USGS.

Mike Torresan—“Trips to Hawaii with BR were an adventure like no other. Cheap eats was one of his specialties. At Saigon Cafe, which was a restaurant attached to the former Royal Waikikian motel, we’d eat like kings for well under per diem. We’d save enough money to justify buying an aloha shirt at Woolworth’s. We were there so many times over a 4-5 year period that the owner of Saigon Cafe thought BR and I were airline pilots. At one of our $1.99 breakfasts one morning, the owner asked who we flew for!

“We somehow nicknamed each other Leo on one of those trips. I was Leo Elder. He was Leo Junior. I’m a month older. This profession made life-long friendships.”

Bruce Jaffe—“BR made fieldwork fun. I first met him in 1980 doing experiments with Abby Sallenger’s sea sled. We’d drive together in a government vehicle to Fort Ord every day for most of a year. We studied for the Geology GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) on the way. I went dozens of places with him over the next 4 decades, and can’t remember a bad trip. I discovered so much with him and had so much fun.

“In a trip to Jamaica in 2007, to learn about boulder transport, BR, Ted Robinson (a very popular older English professor from the University of the West Indies), and I went out to dinner at a fancy place on the water. We were greeted by handshakes. Ted got a normal handshake, mine was a fist bump. BR’s was an elaborate, cool handshake. The bartender apparently had sized us up and knew BR was the coolest. He was right.”

Tom Reiss—“For those lucky enough to join BR in the field, we all can attest to the fact that it wasn't all about work! The experience itself was one the fundamental principles of his life's endeavor. I can (barely) recall several kava-fueled welcoming ceremonies in the South Pacific that were mandatory in order to secure permission to work in villages and on beaches of remote coral atolls. These ‘meetings’ always included lots of storytelling that added a rich cultural texture to the fabric of work we were doing.

“Those of us that worked with Bruce will have fond memories of his contagious enthusiasm and love for his research. Prior to his work in tsunami hazards, Bruce established himself as an expert in an impressively wide variety of coastal and marine geology-related subjects. His research took him all over the Pacific where his warmhearted approach to science ultimately led to lifelong collaborations, friendships, and even family.”

Eric Grossman—“Like many of you, I have a lot of fond memories of BR—digging into sea-level histories, beachrock, and tsunami deposits, mapping corals, banging shallow seismic reflection profiles, and 5 years of beach profiling—though he always wanted me as [stadia] rod man at [energetic hawaiian beaches such as] Sandy Beach, Makapuʻu, or Waimea! He was one of the kindest men I've known and I will remember him best in this era of the mid 1990’s.

Lori Dengler—“A meticulous scientist and a friend who knew how to have fun. It was a life well-lived and he leaves behind a legacy of solid research and the respect and admiration of a multitude of colleagues and it's hard to do much better than that.” 

Francisco Dourado—“Since we first met, he treated me like he knew me a long time ago, always smiling and helpful. I remember clearly the day he told me that I would have to buy a Hawaiian shirt to go to the lab on Fridays.”

A man balances at the top of a ladder leaning against a pole, on a beach, with a man below holding the end of the ladder.

In 1981, USGS researcher Abby Sallenger was working on development of a new data-acquisition system, “capable of measuring waves, currents, and the nearshore profile in breaking waves." The elaborate sled consisted of a mast, various winches, infrared rangefinder, and optical prisms mounted at the top of the mast. Apparently in this photo, a quick fix to the optical prisms was required, and Bruce Richmond was tasked with climbing up to make the adjustment. Bruce Jaffe holds the ladder in place.