K. O. Emery

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

June 6, 1914 - April 12, 1998

Scientific Discipline: Geology
Membership Type:
Emeritus (elected 1971)

Marine geologist K.O. Emery utilized concepts of geophysics, geochemistry, and biology to determine the geological structure and behavior of bodies of water and shorelines all over the world.  He authored approximately 290 publications and 15 books on marine geology and geophysics.  During World War II, Emery created maps of sediment types in the Pacific Ocean that were important for the development of acoustic anti-submarine warfare.  His studies of the atolls of the Northern Marshall Islands revealed patterns of biologically-produced sediments in lagoons, and he interpreted their distribution in relation to lagoonal morphology and prevailing currents.  Emery determined the history of progradation (expansion of a river channel towards the ocean over time) for the Atlantic margin over the past 70 million years, showing the surviving remnants of most continental shelf sediment.  This led to his discovery that the variability of continental margins (tectonic dams, progradational wedges, faulted trenches, etc.) was dependent upon the stage of a margin’s tectonic development.  He also became the namesake of the Emery Rod Method, a process for measuring beach and dune profiles.   

Emery attended the University of Illinois and received his B.S. in 1935, his M.S. in geology in 1939, and his Ph.D. in geology in 1941.  After serving as an assistant geologist at Illinois State Geological Survey for two years, he left to become an assistant marine geologist (and later an associate geologist) at the University of California’s Division of War Research in San Diego from 1943 to 1945.  As the war ended, Emery decided to pursue a teaching career as an assistant professor of geology at the University of Southern California.  He held the position from 1945 to 1962, becoming a professor in 1950.  During this time, he worked part-time as a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.  He returned to research in 1962 as a geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he was promoted to senior scientist (1963-1975), to Acting Dean of Graduate Studies (1968), and finally to the Henry Bryant Bigelow Oceanographer (1975-1979).  He was involved in several geological organizations, including the Geological Society of America, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the American Geophysical Union, the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (past vice president), and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (past vice president).  Emery’s contributions were recognized with many awards, among them the Shepard Prize for Marine Geology in 1969, the Compass Distinguished Achievement Award of the Marine Technology Society in 1974, the AAAS-Rosenteil Award in Oceanographic Science in 1975, and the Maurice Ewing Award of the American Geophysical Union in 1985.

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