William Haxby ’71

10 January 2006

Class: 1971

Deceased: January 4, 2006

Alumni survivors: Dr. James Haxby ’73 P03 (Sibling), Ms. Barbara H. Brady ’73 P03 (Sibling-in-law), Robert G. Haxby ’70 W71 (Sibling), Mr. Andrew W. Haxby ’03 (Nephew)

William F. Haxby, who created the first maps of the ocean floor to be based on satellite measurements of the water’s surface and became a master at translating complicated marine data into comprehensible visual displays, died on Wednesday at his home in Westwood, N.J. He was 56.

The cause was apparently a heart attack, said James V. Haxby, a brother.

Dr. Haxby, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University since 1978, used computers to sift streams of data from satellites and other sensors and produce images revealing hidden ocean features or phenomena like the drifting of Arctic sea ice.

“Bill peeled back the surface of the ocean for us,” said Robin Bell, a colleague at the observatory. “His maps launched countless expeditions and formed the framework for studies of the ocean floor for two decades.”

His signal achievement, several ocean scientists said, was the first global “gravity field” map of the world’s oceans, created in 1983 using measurements of the height of the sea surface collected five years earlier by a satellite called Seasat that carried a then-new type of downward-pointing radar that could create images. Dimples and humps in the sea, not discernible up close but detectable with satellites, are generated by variations in earth’s gravitational field that are created by seabed features like seamounts, chasms and ridges.

Before the gravity maps, three-dimensional charts of the seafloor were drawn largely by using thousands of individual soundings taken over the centuries from ships – a method involving much guesswork and leaving vast gaps.

Dr. Haxby led a small team that “invented the method to convert millions of arcane satellite observations into quantitative grids and then exquisite images,” said David T. Sandwell, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

“Major volcanic chains such as the Louisville Ridge and Foundation Seamounts had been barely detected by sparse ship soundings, yet they were elegantly and accurately displayed on Bill’s gravity maps,” Dr. Sandwell said, referring to two seamount chains in the Pacific Ocean.

William Fulton Haxby was born in Minneapolis and studied geophysics at the University of Minnesota and at Cornell and Oxford.

His entire career was spent at Lamont-Doherty, where colleagues often marveled at his ability to turn reams of data into colorful maps and animation that conveyed far more meaning than words or numbers.

One map showed the effect of a 16-foot rise in sea levels on Florida. Such a shift is projected if either Greenland’s ice sheet or that of West Antarctica eventually melts. Everything south of Lake Okeechobee would become submerged.

In addition to his brother James, Dr. Haxby is survived by his companion of 15 years, Miriam Colwell; his mother, Mary Haxby; a daughter, Jane Haxby; another brother, Robert; and a sister, Mary Haxby.

Some of Dr. Haxby’s most recent work, done with Prof. Stephanie Pfirman of Barnard College, was a set of animations depicting how old, thick sea ice periodically builds in the Arctic Ocean and then is expelled past Greenland into the Atlantic. View these ice_movies via GeoMapApp.

“He was amazing at making physical processes come to life,” Professor Pfirman said. “When I showed the animation to my family over the holidays, they said that for the first time they realized how the ice moved in the Arctic. They had heard me talk about it for years, but through Bill’s animation they could finally see it.” 

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