Barclay Kamb

California Institute of Technology

December 17, 1931 - April 21, 2011

Scientific Discipline: Geology
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1990)

Glaciologist Walter Barclay Kamb was esteemed for his seminal work on the crystallographic structures of all the known high-pressure ice phases, his bold field observations—complemented by creative theoretical analyses—of the critical processes controlling the fast flow of glaciers and ice streams, and his vast contributions to the scientific literature.

Kamb was “dual-threat” in that he had the theoretician’s mathematical mind and the experimentalist’s sense of practicality. He could operate comfortably in the realms of quantitative models, the laboratory, and the field. In addition, he had the stamina, hardiness, and organizational skills of an explorer.

Born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area and the Southern California city of Pasadena, Kamb graduated from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1952, having majored in physics. He stayed on for graduate studies in physics, but after a year decided to transfer to the Geology Division. Inspired by his interest in the atomic structure of the American southwest’s minerals, he did his doctoral thesis on the structure of the complex mineral zunyite, with the Chemistry Division’s Linus Pauling as his advisor.

Having left his mark in three divisions—Physics, Geology, and Chemistry—Kamb was offered several jobs when he finished his Ph.D. in 1956, and he chose an appointment as assistant professor of geology. Thus began Kamb’s 55 years as a member of the Caltech faculty; he became a full professor of geology and geophysics in 1963 and the Barbara and Stanley R. Rawn Professor in 1990.

Kamb was attracted to landscapes still covered by glaciers or formed by glacial activity. His first major project, a study of the Blue Glacier in Washington’s Mt. Olympus National Park, established him as a leading glaciologist. Over the succeeding years he initiated a sequence of projects—each one bigger than the last—that led to numerous influential papers, , helped change the scope of glaciology, and, some say, catapulted the field into the forefront of modern environmental sciences.

Kamb’s Variegated Glacier project in Alaska was the first detailed study of a galloping, or surging, glacier during its active period. He then investigated one of the largest and most active glaciers in Alaska, the Columbia Glacier. But the crowning work of Kamb’s career was the Antarctic Project (1988–2001), in which he studied the biggest glaciers on Earth—the fast-moving Antarctic ice streams. Among other findings, his team established that the ice streams draining the West Antarctic ice sheet had the combined characteristics of surge glaciers and tidewater glaciers.

In recognition of his important contributions to Antarctic glaciology, the central ice stream flowing into the Ross Ice Shelf was named the Kamb Ice Stream.

Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software