Mark Meier

1996 Robert E. Horton Medal Winner

University of Colorado at Boulder

Mark F. Meier received the Robert E. Horton Medal on December 17, 1996, at the AGU Fall Meeting Honor Ceremony in San Francisco, Calif. The Horton Medal acknowledges outstanding contributions to the geophysical aspects of hydrology. The award citation and Meier’s response are given here.


“The Horton Medal is awarded in recognition of `outstanding contributions to the geophysical aspects of hydrology.’ For the first time, this medal will be presented to a hydrologist who has concentrated his attention on water in its solid phase. Mark F. Meier’s long and distinguished career in glaciology spans most of the modern era for that science, and he himself has played a central role in leading glaciology from its historical domain as a self-marginalized hobby of amateurs and adventurers to its present status as a fully mature geophysical science. Mark has helped steer glaciology to this high ground both by the example of his science and by his outstanding leadership of key scientific organizations.

“Like many who share the blessing of an Iowa birthplace, Mark acquired a profound love for the mountains and the sea. Important figures in his early scientific development were his father, a professor of psychology and a geology enthusiast; Robert Sharp, supervisor of his Caltech doctorate on glacier flow mechanics, Friedl Hoinkes, an Austrian expert on glacier energy and mass balance measurements, and Luna Leopold, who invited Mark to found a glaciological research program within the Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mark took up this offer, and in 1956 was appointed Chief of the USGS Project Office – Glaciology in Tacoma, Washington. As a glaciologist working within the Water Resources Division, he was quick to grasp the Cartesian dualism that described his situation: glaciers melt, therefore they are a water resource. During his 30-year tenure as a project chief, he assembled a remarkably talented and heterogeneous group to conduct fundamental research on the hydrological aspects of glaciers and snow. Accomplishments of Mark and his Tacoma colleagues include the establishment of a rational framework for mass and water balance data collection and demonstrations of the value of such measurements in monitoring climate change. Traditionally, mass balance studies have been seen as necessary but mundane. By a combination of rigor and high-mindedness, Mark has played a unique role in rehabilitating this area of glaciology: first, by clearly articulating why such measurements should be taken, and second, by demonstrating how such a measurement program should be conducted.

“Among scientists concerned with glaciers, Mark has been the one most prominent in relating glacier processes to wider concerns in hydrology and environmental science. In his later years at USGS, he expanded his research on the mass balance of mountain glaciers to address the question of how glaciers affect global sea level. His 1984 paper in Science on this topic is vintage Meier. It gives motivation and honorable purpose to an area of glaciology that is sometimes disparaged: it steadfastly focuses on the big picture and it links the comparatively small scale and small issues of glacier processes and responses to the giant scale of the Earth system and urgent issues of global change.

“Perhaps the most memorable work to emerge from the USGS years came from Mark’s enormously fruitful collaborations with Austin Post. Together they highlighted the importance of fast glacier flow and glacier flow instabilities. Their classic 1969 paper entitled “What are glacier surges?” presented such a definitive description of the phenomenon of surging and such a clear statement of the associated challenges to science that it has served as a virtual battle plan for all subsequent research on that subject.

“The culmination of Mark’s years with the USGS was the Columbia Glacier Project. Pursuing their interests in flow instability, Meier and Post drew attention to a potential instability associated with flotation and the rapid disintegration of tidewater glaciers and pointed to a likely candidate, Columbia Glacier, on the Alaska Coast. Furthermore, they noted that the present state of the glacier was near the trigger threshold and warned that rapid disintegration and catastrophic retreat of the lower Columbia Glacier would disgorge icebergs into Prince William Sound, the now-famous maritime route followed by such vessels as the Exxon Valdez. As chief of the Project Office-Glaciology, Mark was able to convince his USGS superiors of the scientific interest and possible danger of this unusual environmental hazard. In doing so, he succeeded in launching what was unquestionably the first and only example of “big science” applied to a nonpolar ice mass. I doubt if anyone else could have formulated the scientific plan or marshaled the resources that brought the project to life. Now, however, the pressure was really on. If the instability failed to develop, a deeply embarrassing situation would present itself. Nature is rarely cooperative when scientific reputations are at stake, but Columbia Glacier proved the exception; the glacier began its catastrophic retreat on schedule, and the retreat itself spawned excellent science on iceberg calving and the subglacial hydrology of fast-flowing glaciers. “Like his research contributions, Mark’s leadership and service contributions are so numerous and wide-ranging that they can only be touched upon. A consistent thread is that Mark never accepts a job without leaving his imprint. It is not the status that attracts him, but the opportunity of using the instruments of leadership to achieve a worthy objective. As president of the International Commission on Snow and Ice (ICSI) during the International Hydrological Decade, he seized the opportunity to promote glaciology as a hydrological science by launching the international Combined Heat-, Ice- and Water-Balances Program, the World Glacier Inventory Program, and the Permanent Service on the Fluctuations of Glaciers. As the first glaciologist to become President of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences, he worked to improve the integration of ICSI within the Association and to enhance the visibility and acceptance of hydrology within the geophysical sciences. In 1985, Mark left the USGS to become director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In that capacity he molded the Institute into a thriving endeavor, with greatly increased financial support and a high international reputation. As a member of the first U.S. national committee to define a geosphere-biosphere program, he participated in shaping the national and international Global Change Program and led the development of an arctic global change program.

” Mark Meier’s colleagues regard him as a kind of navigator for the science of glaciology because he has always been able to locate the high road and lead others toward it. We speak of him as the ‘Wise Man of Glaciology’ (interestingly, not the Wise Old Man, because none of us think of him as anything but an active scientist). His gift for enunciating clear and compelling paradigms has helped make him one of the most influential glaciologists of our time. His enduring legacy is to have shaped the future of a science. By leadership and example, he has encouraged glaciology to shed its parochialism and to raise its stature as a geophysical science. In doing so, he has helped the scientific community appreciate that glaciology is a key component of the hydrological sciences and that the cryosphere is an important wild card in any discussions of global change. Mark, there is no glaciologist more deserving of the Horton Medal. Your colleagues celebrate this achievement with you.”

—GARRY CLARKE, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.


“I am greatly honored to be this year’s recipient of the Robert E. Horton Medal, and am especially pleased to have Garry Clarke present the citation. I have long admired Garry’s intellectual depth: his many seminal contributions in the field of glacier dynamics, his breadth of productivity in geophysics, and his ability to stimulate students and colleagues with great ideas. We have worked together quite a lot in research and in scientific ventures, as well as in that wonderful nonorganization called Northwest Glaciologists; he is certainly one of my heroes.

“It is also a great honor to be connected with Robert E. Horton, who established the foundation for quantitative drainage-basin analysis. As a graduate student, many years ago, I tried to contribute to this field. I normalized and aggregated lots of area-altitude data and found, to my surprise, that the results showed what we would now call self-similarity as well as a stochastic distribution. Although my own attempts did not succeed very well, it is gratifying that the ideas were picked up later by others and are part of the major revolution in geomorphic analysis begun by Horton.

“I am lucky to have been able to pursue a career in glaciology. Glaciology is a fun and exciting field of science. It takes one to beautiful areas of the world, it exposes one to both intellectual and physical challenges, it provides special insight through the observation of solid Earth processes in motion, and it has significant ramifications to many other environmental, solid Earth, and fluid Earth sciences. Because of the unusual work areas, the need to share responsibility for each other’s safety in the field, and the fact that it is a rather small scientific discipline, there is wonderful camaraderie and personal friendship among its practitioners. If I were starting a new life in science, I think I would again choose glaciology – although there have been a few times, when my feet were cold, my sleeping bag was wet, and my instruments were suffering from both cold and wet, that the fields of volcanology or coral reef ecology sounded very attractive. Glaciology is inherently interdisciplinary, and many of my colleagues are also talented in other sciences and even in the arts; they are an exciting and interesting bunch to be with.

“I have to mention that during the years of my career there were enormous gains in the research toolbox. Early on, I thought that the major breakthrough in glaciological instrumentation were Write-in-the-Rain notebook paper and the aluminum grain scoop. We measured glacier velocities, for instance, by reading verniers on heavy transits and laboriously reducing the data after leaving the field, using glorified adding machines and books of interpolated trigonometry functions. Now we use automated electronic distance measurement instruments or GPS positioning or measure velocity fields by synthetic aperture radar interferometry from satellites. Scaling and other mathematical techniques from the emerging field of complexity are making it possible to find structure in complicated data sets, so that conclusions can be drawn even though the physical processes are poorly understood. These are remarkable changes, and they have transformed the field significantly. What will we be able to do in another few decades? I hope that the young researchers of today realize how rapidly new opportunities are being created! The specifics of these new methods cannot now be imagined, but the next generation of researchers should be preparing for them by obtaining broad background in mathematics and the basic sciences and watching progress in neighboring disciplines.

“Many of us who have attained honors such as this one have done so by riding on the shoulders of giants, and this is especially true with me. I would first like to thank my teacher, Bob Sharp, and the challenging intellectual atmosphere at Caltech. I will never forget Bob’s repeated question, after I had reported someone’s result, “How do YOU know?” I also owe special gratitude to the late Friedl Hoinkes, who taught me the physics of energy balance measurement as well as how to work with scientists of very different values and agendas, and to Luna Leopold, who created a broad and productive hydrologic science machine within the Water Resources Division of the Geological Survey and hired me into it. I wish that I could publicly list and thank the many colleagues and coauthors who have contributed in large part to any success I might claim, and it hurts me to be unable to do this. A few who had an inordinate contribution to my productivity include Austin Post, who has the best intuitive and observational grasp of glaciology in action of anyone I have ever met and who is incredibly quick to perceive the heart of an unusual problem or behavior; Al Rasmussen, who is always full of ideas on how to solve seemingly intractable problems and who cleaned up my sloppy mathematics; and Bob Krimmel, who produces first-class data year after year in sometimes trying circumstances. At the University of Colorado I have been working especially with Tad Pfeffer on a new array of glaciological programs, and David Bahr, one of my first Ph.D. students, who introduced me to the usefulness of nonlinear mathematics.

“In the citation, Garry mentioned that I am the first glaciologist to attain this medal, and he also alluded to a “Cartesian dualism” regarding solid- and liquid-water hydrology. I would prefer to look at this rather differently: the partitions dividing the disciplines may be necessary for science management, but as is emphasized in the Global Change Program, the physical and biologic processes in the Earth system do not recognize these partitions. One can often find fruitful new opportunities in research by moving out of one’s designated area. This brings me to another acknowledgment: I wish to thank AGU publicly, not only for granting me this important award, but more importantly, for creating an interdisciplinary atmosphere at meetings where the boundaries between disciplines can be explored easily. This interdisciplinary ‘melting pot’ atmosphere is, in my mind, a most exciting aspect of an AGU meeting; it allows us to garner ideas or learn of techniques in neighboring disciplines for application to one’s own work. I am certainly indebted to AGU for creating this stimulating environment. If there is one message that I most wish to convey to the younger scientist, it is to stay broadly focused and keep your eyes on, and beyond, the borders of your discipline – that’s where the excitement is!

“Finally, but most importantly, I wish to direct special thanks to my wife, Barbara, and my family, for loving and supporting me in spite of my obsessive pursuit of science. Glacier research in the field, or even in the office, is a lot of fun for the participants, but it is not great for the family left behind. Now, I have finally acquired some wisdom, and realize how important your kindness, encouragement, and love have been to me in the face of some 41 years of extended absences and continuously pressing deadlines and other crises. I am happy that you could share this precious moment; I love you very much!

“Again, many thanks to you, Garry, to all who supported my nomination, to those who made my career reasonably productive, and to AGU for bestowing this great honor!”

—MARK F. MEIER, University of Colorado at Boulder