[Paleopsych] NYT: William Haxby, Mapper of Ocean Floors, Is Dead at 56

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William Haxby, Mapper of Ocean Floors, Is Dead at 56

[Sarah and I knew Bill through his partner, Miriam, who met him at work at 
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Sarah and I know Miriam from college 
days. We stayed with them several times. Bill was a perfectly 
good-natured, competent man, enthusiastic about his work, frustrated by 
during periods between getting funded, and full of stories about his 
career and those of other mappers. It is amazing, considering what does 
get funded and also considering the huge regard for his work among his 
peers that he wasn't funded for life.

[Basically what Bill did was to develop computer programs that took 
satellite data and mapped the *surface* of the ocean. If the surface 
dipped ever so slightly, it was due to the extra tug of gravity caused by 
there being more matter--like an underwater mountain--than nearby. This 
lets you map the bottom of the ocean. My guess is that since underground 
different specific gravities, straightfoward use of his method will result 
in inaccuracies.

[The article says Bill's map was a lot better than individual soundings in 
the past, but perhaps better ways of making soundings have been made since 
then. If he were still alive, that would be the first thing I'd ask him 
about, and Bill would certainly have told me the best he could. He did not 
at all mind laymen asking difficult questions. That was not his way.

[We were hoping to visit this Summer. Bill died much, much too soon. Our 
deepest condolances to Miriam.

[More from LDEO itself below. Reminiscences about Bill will be posted on 
the site. Click the URL to get a fine photo of Bill and an image of his 
most famous map, which graces the cover of Stephan Hall's _Mapping the 
Millennium_. Then follows a shorter piece from the local paper.]

January 9, 2006

William F. Haxby, who created the first maps of the ocean floor to be
based on satellite measurements of the water's surface and became a
master at translating complicated marine data into comprehensible
visual displays, died on Wednesday at his home in Westwood, N.J. He
was 56.

The cause was apparently a heart attack, said James V. Haxby, a

Dr. Haxby, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth
Observatory at Columbia University since 1978, used computers to sift
streams of data from satellites and other sensors and produce images
revealing hidden ocean features or phenomena like the drifting of
Arctic sea ice.

"Bill peeled back the surface of the ocean for us," said Robin Bell, a
colleague at the observatory. "His maps launched countless expeditions
and formed the framework for studies of the ocean floor for two

His signal achievement, several ocean scientists said, was the first
global "gravity field" map of the world's oceans, created in 1983
using measurements of the height of the sea surface collected five
years earlier by a satellite called Seasat that carried a then-new
type of downward-pointing radar that could create images. Dimples and
humps in the sea, not discernible up close but detectable with
satellites, are generated by variations in earth's gravitational field
that are created by seabed features like seamounts, chasms and ridges.

Before the gravity maps, three-dimensional charts of the seafloor were
drawn largely by using thousands of individual soundings taken over
the centuries from ships - a method involving much guesswork and
leaving vast gaps.

Dr. Haxby led a small team that "invented the method to convert
millions of arcane satellite observations into quantitative grids and
then exquisite images," said David T. Sandwell, a researcher at the
Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

"Major volcanic chains such as the Louisville Ridge and Foundation
Seamounts had been barely detected by sparse ship soundings, yet they
were elegantly and accurately displayed on Bill's gravity maps," Dr.
Sandwell said, referring to two seamount chains in the Pacific Ocean.

William Fulton Haxby was born in Minneapolis and studied geophysics at
the University of Minnesota and at Cornell and Oxford.

His entire career was spent at Lamont-Doherty, where colleagues often
marveled at his ability to turn reams of data into colorful maps and
animation that conveyed far more meaning than words or numbers.

One map showed the effect of a 16-foot rise in sea levels on Florida.
Such a shift is projected if either Greenland's ice sheet or that of
West Antarctica eventually melts. Everything south of Lake Okeechobee
would become submerged.

In addition to his brother James, Dr. Haxby is survived by his
companion of 15 years, Miriam Colwell; his mother, Mary Haxby; a
daughter, Jane Haxby; another brother, Robert; and a sister, Mary

Some of Dr. Haxby's most recent work, done with Prof. Stephanie
Pfirman of Barnard College, was a set of animations depicting how old,
thick sea ice periodically builds in the Arctic Ocean and then is
expelled past Greenland into the Atlantic. They are posted at

"He was amazing at making physical processes come to life," Professor
Pfirman said. "When I showed the animation to my family over the
holidays, they said that for the first time they realized how the ice
moved in the Arctic. They had heard me talk about it for years, but
through Bill's animation they could finally see it."

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory News


Ken Kostel
(212) 854-9729

William F. Haxby, world-renowned geophysicist and long-time member of
Lamont community, passes away at 56

William F. Haxby, a world-renowned earth scientist at Columbia
University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the first to produce
detailed images of the world's seafloor, died suddenly at his home in
Westwood, New Jersey on Wednesday, January 4. He was 56 years old.

Haxby used radar signals to precisely measure the distance from
satellites to the sea surface. From calculations involving a
continuous stream of altimetry data from the Seasat satellites along
thousands of orbital tracks, he reconstructed the minute variations in
the water surface produced by the gravitational attraction of sea
mounts and other topographical features hidden beneath the ocean. His
so-called "satellite-derived gravity map" was a stunning
three-dimensional picture of the Earth's hidden seascape, with its
now-familiar mid-ocean ridges, deep-sea trenches, underwater volcanoes
and submarine canyons laid bare for the first time.

"Bill figured out how to map the oceans with satellites in a few days
that would have taken decades to do with ships," said Jeff Weissel,
who worked with Haxby on the first maps. "Seasat only ran 3 months,
yet he was able to show us the entire ocean with that short mission,
including many places that ships had never visited."

When his first black and white image rolled off the printer in 1981,
his colleagues were stunned, not only by the remarkable detail of
their brand-new view of the planet, but also by the realization that
the whole of the Earth's oceans were suddenly portrayed as they
actually were and not as they had been inferred from often widely
spaced echo-soundings. When compared to the maps made with ship-based
soundings, the already familiar seascape was brought into sharper
focus, but for the third of the ocean floor that had not yet been seen
or studied, everything that scientists saw was new and begging to be
Gravity map of the seafloor 
One of the gravity maps of the seafloor William Haxby produced using
satellite-based radar altimetry of the ocean surface

"Bill peeled back the surface of the ocean for us," said Robin Bell, a
colleague at Lamont-Doherty. "His maps launched countless expeditions
and formed the framework for studies of the ocean floor for two
decades. The images he produced also appear on the cover of textbooks
and on classroom walls around the globe and will undoubtedly continue
to inspire students for years to come."

Most recently Haxby had been active in producing another global
synthesis of seafloor imagery, this one obtained with echo-soundings
from a new generation of multi-beam sonar that create a view of the
oceans far more detailed than his gravity map. He was able to share
his amazement of the ocean's depths by creating a software application
called GeoMapApp that runs on most computers and enables virtually
anyone to explore the world he first revealed. It is available for
free at http://www.geomapapp.org.

"For more than 30 years, Bill worked tirelessly to expand our
understanding of the planet," said Michael Purdy, Director of
Lamont-Doherty. "His impact was felt in countless ways and in dozens
of discoveries. His quiet, unwavering support of science and the
pursuit of new frontiers will be deeply missed."

Haxby was born in Minneapolis and received his B.S. degree in
geophysics from the University of Minnesota. He completed his Ph.D. in
geophysics at Cornell University and held a post-doctoral research
fellowship at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom before
joining the Lamont-Doherty research staff in 1978.

Haxby is survived by his partner of 14 years, Miriam Colwell;
daughter, Jane Haxby (Daniel Gottlieb); mother, Mary; sister, Mary
Gibbons (Dennis); and brothers, James and Robert.

Funeral services will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 7 at
the Grace Episcopal Church in Westwood, New Jersey. Flowers or
contributions can be sent to the church.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a member of The Earth Institute
at Columbia University, is one of the world's leading research centers
examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every
continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes,
volcanoes, environmental hazards and beyond, Observatory scientists
provide the basic knowledge of Earth systems needed to inform the
future health and habitability of our planet.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world's
leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its
environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence
in the core disciplines -- earth sciences, biological sciences,
engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences -- and
stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through
its research training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science
and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing
special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor.

Funeral today for ocean scientist Haxby


(Original publication: January 7, 2006)

PALISADES -- A funeral service will be held today for William F.
Haxby, a renowned Columbia University scientist responsible for a
conceptual breakthrough in the scientific understanding of the Earth's
oceanic landscape.

Haxby died Wednesday in his Westwood, N.J., home. He was 56.

Haxby joined the research staff at Columbia University's
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades in 1978.

In 1981, he discovered how to map the ocean floor using data gathered
in a three-month NASA satellite mission that recorded the undulations
of the sea surface with radar, said Bill Ryan, Haxby's longtime
colleague and a Lamont-Doherty senior scholar.

His "satellite-derived gravity map" gave the world a three-dimensional
picture of the planet's hidden seascape in a detail never before

"A three-month satellite mission produced a model of the ocean floor a
hundred times clearer than 50 years of mapping it with research
ships," Ryan said. "It was revealed in a sharpness, a focus that just
astonished everybody."

Ryan said Haxby's research opened a new chapter of understanding for
the entire scientific community.

"It launched a whole generation of ocean scientists to then send ships
out to sea to check out all these features that had been made
visible," he said. "It immediately excited the community to try to
explain how all these ridges and cracks and volcanoes had originated
in the pattern they were in."

Haxby recently created a software application available free at
[3]www.geomapapp.org that generates images of sea floor topography
using data from the new generation of multi-beam sonar on ocean
research ships.

"Galileo gave us the telescope, but it took multiple generations to
sharpen that and eventually become the Hubble," Ryan said. "Bill, in a
single life, for the oceans, took us from seeing features 10 miles
across to features the size of a football field."

Michael Purdy, director of Lamont-Doherty, said Haxby worked
tirelessly to expand scientific understanding of the planet.

"His impact was felt in countless ways and in dozens of discoveries,"
Purdy said.

Haxby's research will continue to inspire scientists for generations
to come, Ryan said.

Haxby was born in Minneapolis, and received his bachelor's in
geophysics at the University of Minnesota. He completed his doctorate
in geophysics at Cornell University and held a post-doctoral research
fellowship at the University of Oxford.

He is survived by his partner of 14 years, Miriam Colwell; his
daughter, Jane Haxby; his mother, Mary; his sister, Mary Gibbons; and
two brothers, James and Robert.

Services are at 2 p.m. today at Grace Episcopal Church, 9 Harrington
Ave., Westwood, N.J.

The Journal News,[7] is a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper
serving Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties in New York.


3. http://www.geomapapp.org/
7. http://www.gannett.com/

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