Career of the Cryosphere
An interview with USGS scientist emeritus Richie Williams about his career studying the Earth's cryosphere with remote sensing technology.
Alex Demas: Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of USGS Corecast. I’m your host, Alex Demas, and today, we’ll be talking with Dr. Richie Williams, an emeritus scientist with the USGS, about his work with Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes. Dr. Williams has studied geology and the cryosphere for the better part of 60 years, holding positions in the private sector, in the U.S. Air Force and the USGS. He is a noted expert in remote sensing, geologic hazards, and glaciology, particularly that of Iceland. Dr. Williams, thank you for joining me.
Richie Williams: Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Alex Demas: Tell me about your air force service. Was that what got you interested in remote sensing work?
Richie Williams: In a strong sense, yes, but long before I was ever in the Air Force I was a photographer, and I was always fascinated with photography, particularly using telephoto lenses in photography to have close-ups. So in the Air Force, by chance, I got assigned to a C-130 Hercules Remote Sensing aircraft, and I served at the US Air Force Cambridge Research Labs in Massachusetts for my entire active duty service. During that time, we flew all over the world—the Caribbean, the U.S., Africa, the Middle East—looking for natural landing sites. We were in Greenland, Iceland, and many other places. So, like the US Navy, I got to see the world.
Alex Demas: What brought you to Iceland?
Richie Williams: I had my bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Michigan, where I worked under Prof. Ed Goddard, and he introduced me to photogeology, which is using aerial photographs to map geology. When I got to Penn State for my PhD, I worked under Prof. Laurence Lattman, and he was a world class photogeologist. He had me work at HRB Singer, Inc, which was developing thermal infrared scanning devices. That gave me another part of the electro-magnetic spectrum to work on. When I was in the Air Force, we had a chance to go to Iceland, so I said, “Why don’t we put a thermal infrared scanner on the aircraft and take a look at the geothermal and volcanic parts of the country.” By chance, when we arrived, Surtsey started to erupt again, which is a very famous volcano off the south coast. And of course, you can’t miss the excitement of a volcanic eruption, particularly if you’re up close and personal. On top of that, Iceland is one of the most dynamic countries in the world for geology. Its tectonics, its volcanic activity, its glaciers, its geothermal areas, the space heating for most of the buildings—it’s a really absolutely fascinating place.
Alex Demas: Tell me about the first glaciers you studied in Iceland. What did you study about them?
Richie Williams: Well, Secretary Stewart Udall and USGS Director Bill Pecora and Bill Fisher all realized the importance of imaging the Earth’s surface from satellites, particularly since the Interior Department was responsible for half a billion acres of public land. And so, they came up with an Earth Resources Technology Satellite. In fact, two were launched, ERTS 1 and ERTS 2. NASA quickly became a partner in the operation, and they renamed them Landsat 1 and Landsat 2. Well, at that time, the Survey had about 25 grantees under the ERTS 1 project, and one of them was me. And so, I focused in on Iceland and got some absolutely spectacular images of its glaciers. I quickly realized that, if I could do this for Iceland, I could probably do it for the whole planet. That’s what launched the Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, of which we have 10 volumes published, one volume to go. But it was that looking down from Space, at particular features that were dynamic, is what triggered the deep interest in Iceland and glaciers of the whole planet.
Alex Demas: Do you have a favorite glacier in Iceland? Or a particularly memorable one?
Richie Williams: Well actually two. Of course, the biggest is Vatnajökull (8100 km2), which is the largest glacier in Iceland and also in Europe. I spent a week on it on a research trip many years ago on snowmobiles, seeing just some absolutely unbelievable sights of geothermal activity interacting with the ice cap. Then, in 2005, Oddur Sigurðsson, my close friend and colleague in Iceland, decided to do a ground GPS survey of Drangajökull in the northwest fjords, and we spent two 14-hour days of beautiful weather on snowmobiles, mapping the entire surface of Drangajökull. We had the best-mapped glacier you’ve ever seen in northwest Iceland.
Alex Demas: Does the research you did in Iceland have direct benefits for us in the United States? What can we learn from Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes?
Richie Williams: Particularly the glaciers, because that original work that was done in Iceland back in 1972 and 1973 with the ERTS 1 led to the putting together of the US Global Change Research Program element dealing with glaciers. It’s a major scientific and interagency program, very, very important to the United States. And it was that early work in Iceland that triggered the idea that you could look at all of the glaciers of the world. In addition, we saw after we finished the volume on Antarctica, we realized that we could use that imagery and imagery from other satellites to start monitoring the changes in the coast of Antarctica. This becomes important because the loss of ice from either Greenland or Antarctica contributes to sea level rise. This is probably the most important future economic problem that the U.S. is going to have to deal with, and that is the impact of rising seas. So, these are not just academic studies; it has to do with the future of the United States, particularly in the coastal areas.
Alex Demas: I see you have two glaciers named after you in Antarctica. Can you tell me more about them?
Richie Williams: I just alluded to the fact that we’re working on our 11th map of the coast of Antarctica. Well, it turns out that one of the things we wanted to do was inventory the glaciers down there, because you could identify them by their flow lines. One of them was identified in northern Victoria Land, and a colleague of mine, who had nothing to do with the project, put my name in, to honor my work in Antarctica, and that became Williams Glacier. Later on, another map had an ice stream, that it was decided to name it the Williams Ice Stream, so I received that honor as well. There’s an interesting side-story; it turns out that my daughter-in-law’s father worked in Antarctica as a Navy flyer and medical officer, and he has a bay named after him in Antarctica. When I looked at it, it turns out it’s on the same mapsheet as my Williams Ice Stream is shown, so she was shocked when she saw her father’s name on a bay (Cranton Bay) and my name on an ice stream. He was quite pleased to see it too.
Alex Demas: And that should do it. Thank you for joining me, Dr. Williams. This has been another edition of USGS Corecast, a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.