Ken Pierce, USGS

"Guru of Yellowstone Geology"

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Ken Pierce, USGS, A Brief Biography

Ken Pierce USGS was a highly respected geologist with the United States Geological Survey. He had a long and distinguished career studying the Quaternary geology and geomorphology of the Greater Yellowstone region. The Quaternary period is the most recent period of the Cenozoic era beginning around 2.6 million years ago. It is characterized by the great Pleistocene glaciations and includes the current interglacial period in which we live known as the Holocene which began around 11,700 years ago. Pierce made extraordinary contributions to the understanding of Pleistocene glaciation in and around Yellowstone and the dynamics of the Yellowstone hotspot.

This Is Yellowstone kenPierce300Ken Pierce was born to geology royalty. His father William Gamewell Pierce, a mid-western kid from South Dakota, received his Ph. D. in geology from Princeton and became a career USGS geologist. During World War II he was tasked with exploring for oil, coal and strategic minerals in Wyoming. He became fascinated with the geology of Northwestern Wyoming and over his career made some of the first geological maps of the area. He is well known for his research on the Heart Mountain Fault.

In the summers after the war, Bill Pierce took the whole family to Park County, Wyoming while he tromped across the landscape sampling sedimentary formations with his rock hammer and measuring strikes and dips with his Brunton compass. The Wyoming terrain was wild and raw under the endless western sky. Ken was his dad’s field assistant on many long hot Wyoming summer days. From a young age, the developing mind of Ken Pierce was being sharpened to a fine geological edge. His view of the world was through the eyes of a geologist.

Ken’s mother, May Bell Henry Pierce rounded out Ken’s parental influences. She was from a prominent Pierre South Dakota family who owned the local newspaper and were active in politics. Highly educated for a woman of the time, May Bell achieved a master’s degree in mathematics and was another role model of excellence and achievement for Ken.

This Is Yellowstone kenKid300During Ken’s formative school years in the 1940s, the family, including his parents Bill and May Bell, and siblings Bill and Diane, lived in Washington, D.C. Ken’s schooling was guided by the DC public school system where he played trumpet in the school band. In keeping with his self-sufficient and liberal upbringing, he excelled in the boy scouts and was the official boy scout camp bugler in 1951. When he played Taps on his bugle as a finale for a Woodrow Wilson High School Assembly, he was noticed and admired by a dark-haired girl in the audience, his future wife Linda. This connection continued despite their separation during college when he went West to Stanford and she stayed East at Smith College. Ken received his B.S. in geology from Stanford in 1959 where he was a member of the Stanford University Marching Band.

This Is Yellowstone kenLinda300Then on to Yale where he worked with Richard Foster Flint and John Rogers to receive his phD in 1964. Ken joined the United States Geological Survey and in 1965 moved to the regional office in Denver where he spent the next 35 years. Getting to Denver from New Haven was an epic adventure for the young family. Ken packed up the VW Bug with all the supplies needed for the summer, as well as two kids, Nonny the dog, Willow the cat and Ken and Linda. “Colorado or Bust” was their mantra as they sputtered west in the “little Bug that could.” It must have been a comical site to see the four of them packed into the bubble-top compact with a load on top about the same size as the VW itself!

Denver was his basecamp, but his field area was 500 miles to the north. His first western assignment was to map the glacial moraines in and around Yellowstone National Park. Thus began a long distinguished career studying the Quaternary geology and geomorphology of the Yellowstone-Teton area.

For Ken to get the Yellowstone assignment must have been like going home. He knew the area well from his childhood summers helping his dad map geology in Wyoming. For the summer field season, Ken and Linda would load Ken’s Government truck with all the essential gear, not to mention kids and pets, and caravan with the VW Bug to Wyoming. By this time Ken and Linda had two boys, Andrew and Daniel. A couple years later, future geologist Jennifer would be born into the Pierce clan.

Pierce was a classical field geologist. He liked to have feet on the ground, a rock pick in his hand and a loupe magnifier around his neck. He scaned the landscape with eagle eyes and saw beneath the trees and soil to the structure and provenance of the earth. From an early age Ken learned to look at the land not as the human veneer of farm, pasture and recreational scenery, but as the unseen processes that shaped the landscape, as he later called them, the patterns of nature. He became adept at reading the landscape like a mystery novel, seeking clues in unlikely places, and following the trail of evidence to logical conclusions.

With his USGS position, Ken became one of the key players in some of the most comprehensive and dramatic geologic investigations in North America centered on the Greater Yellowstone region. Yellowstone was like the beating heart of the west. It was alive and vital, and Ken took on the study of Yellowstone as his life’s work.

During the exciting mid to late 60s, Ken on horseback mapped the Pinedale and Bull Lake glacial events which would eventually lead to him receiving the Kirk Bryan Award for his USGS professional paper, History and Dynamics of Glaciation in the Northern Yellowstone National Park Area. Ken called it “a story in excruciating detail.”

The 1983 Borah Peak Earthquake in Idaho on the northern margin of the Snake River Plain inspired a new study. Along with colleague Lisa Morgan, Ken provided evidence of sequential faulting, volcanism and uplift along the track of the Yellowstone hotspot which became the Snake River Plain and helped to verify the Yellowstone Hotspot theory. He worked with Irving Friedman and Steve Colman to develop obsidian hydration dating that helped to understand the sequence and timing of glaciation in Yellowstone.

In the late 80s Ken worked with John Good to map and describe the geology of the Tetons and Jackson Hole area and published the widely read Geology of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Starting in the late 90s, he collaborated with Joseph Licciardi to date the moraines he had mapped over the years. Later with Licciardi and John Good he published another USGS Professional Paper, Pleistocene Glaciation of the Jackson Hole Area, Wyoming. His work on the hotspot theory and mapping of Yellowstone topography led to his work on the “heavy breathing” of the Yellowstone Caldera. He was an early proponent of interdisciplinary research and worked with archaeologist Ken Canon to study how the change in shoreline levels from “heavy breathing” affected Native American occupations along Yellowstone Lake. He worked with paleoecologist Cathy Whitlock to understand the climate history and variability in the Yellowstone region.

Ken’s contributions to geologic understanding of earth processes are immense, and he unselfishly built upon those who came before. He worked easily with colleagues, kept an open mind and gave credit where credit was due. He has been so well respected in his career that various young Quaternary scientists have referred to him as “the Guru.”

This Is Yellowstone kenKirkBryan300On the eve of receiving an award from the Geological Society of America in 2014 for his contributions to the scientific understanding of the Greater Yellowstone region, fellow Yellowstone earth scientist Cathy Whitlock praised Ken’s work, saying “Ken Pierce shows us what one geologist can accomplish when given the opportunity to explore one place – the Greater Yellowstone region – for most of his career. Ken’s scientific discoveries have expanded our understanding of the earth system, and his enthusiasm for Yellowstone geology has inspired all who have been lucky enough to spend time in the field with him.” Lisa Morgan described Ken as “a stimulating scientific colleague who has taken courageous scientific positions throughout his career always pushing to new frontiers.”

For his 1979 report on the glaciation of Yellowstone, Pierce was awarded the distinguished Kirk Bryan Award of the Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division of the Geological Society of America. In 2011, Pierce received the Distinguished Career Award of the American Quaternary Association (AMQUA) and the Distinguished Career Award from the Geology and Geomorphology Division of the Geological Society of America in 2012.