December 12, 2018

Dr. G’s #AGU18 Spotlight – A Giant of Tectonophysics: Marie Tharp

Posted by Laura Guertin

One of the Union sessions at this year’s AGU Fall Meeting is titled U22A The Giants of Tectonophysics. I was able to attend the first two talks before zipping off to hear other speakers. I highly enjoyed the first talk, where Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University) laid out a fascinating story about Science on a Mission: How Military Secrecy Impeded the Development of Plate Tectonics. In this blog post, I wish to call attention to the second talk, presented by Dawn Wright (ESRI), titled Marie Tharp: Discoverer of the Rift Valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Inventor of Marine Cartography.

There are many summaries online that detail the life of Marie Tharp, from Wikipedia to Smithsonian Magazine to AAG. Her biographic background is the same across these sites – she grew up spending time in the field with her father as he surveyed for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils. She earned degrees in English and music, then an accelerated degree in petroleum geology and second bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She was hired by the Lamont Geological Observatory and worked with Bruce Heezen to create panoramas of the ocean floor.

Despite her skills at working with bathymetric profiles and ramping up the vertical exaggeration to see seafloor features and extrapolating to fill in the gaps, she still faced challenges that many women in science faced during her time. The 1956 paper that shared with the world the discovery of the Mid-Atlantic rift valley did not include her name in the author list – it wasn’t until 1958 that she started receiving credit as a co-author. She could not go out to sea on oceanographic cruises until 1968. But her ocean panoramas with Bruce Heezen started appearing in issues of National Geographic magazine in 1967 and June 1968. An animation by Rosanna Wan for the Royal Institution tells more details of Tharp’s groundbreaking work.

Dawn Wright ended her presentation by acknowledging Marie Tharp’s legacy in marine cartographic design work, which is evident today in the ocean base map that ESRI uses. When you look at the color, shading, label placement, etc., think of Marie Tharp.

Dawn has kindly shared her PowerPoint slides with all of us ( Please take a moment to review Dawn’s talking points, and then think about how you can share the work of this female giant in tectonophysics.



To learn even more about the legacy of Marie Tharp, you may want to add the following book by Hali Felt to your collection: SOUNDINGS, The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. This is a short video of the author discussing her book.