UC Berkeley volcano expert Ian Carmichael has died at 81

Ian Carmichael

Ian Carmichael in the 1990s. (Rebecca Lange photo)

Ian S. E. Carmichael, a professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on volcanoes and the underground processes that shape them, died peacefully at his home in Berkeley on Aug. 26 from complications of prostate cancer and kidney disease. He was 81.

Carmichael will be remembered as a mentor to two generations of Ph.D. students in geology, a friend and pioneering volcanologist to Mexican geologists, and a gregarious story-teller with a zest for life to his family and friends. He even has a mineral – carmichaelite, an hydroxyl-bearing titanate from Arizona – named in his honor.

“None of his students and colleagues escaped being shaped, in some way, by the hurricane force of Ian’s personality: his infectious enthusiasm, his imaginative brainstorming, his intellectual generosity, and his impatience,“ said Rebecca Lange, his close friend, previous Ph.D. student and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan. “His exuberant pushing and prodding, combined with his belief in us, forced us to stretch ourselves and realize potentials we never knew we had.”

“He was a giant in the field of igneous processes and volcanoes,” added Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a professor in residence in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley. “He was the leader in application of physical chemistry, in particular thermodynamics, to understanding how magmas originate and evolve.”

Using revolutionary new analytical techniques first introduced in the 1960s, Carmichael conducted laboratory experiments on rocks and minerals at various temperatures and pressures, then used this information to deduce the composition and state of molten rock, or magma, deep underground. With such information, geologists can interpret rocks to reconstruct the history of a volcano and determine conditions hundreds of miles below the surface.

This research led him into the field in Iceland, New Guinea, Africa, Alaska, the western U.S. and, for the last 30 years, Mexico, where he met many Mexican geologists and studied that country’s numerous volcanoes – in particular, an unusual mixture of volcanic lavas along the southwest coast called the Jalisco block. There, volcanic magma expected at a subduction zone, where a tectonic plate dives beneath a continental plate, erupted side by side with basaltic magmas expected above hot spots like Hawaii. Carmichael proposed that this results from complex interactions at the boundary between tectonic plates that might eventually split the block from the rest of continental Mexico.

“Most Mexican researchers have a very good memory of (Ian), not only for his friendship, but also because of his direct and indirect contributions to Mexican geology,” said Hugo Delgado Granados, a senior researcher and professor in the Institute of Geophysics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. Delgado Granados is on sabbatical this year at the Berkeley Geochronology Center.

Carmichael was tapped twice (1972-1976 and 1980-1982) to be the chair of the UC Berkeley Department of Geology and Geophysics, the predecessor to the Department of Earth and Planetary Science. Among other administrative roles on campus, he  also was associate dean for research in the Office of Provost for Research (1986-2000) associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate Division (1985-2000), and acting director of the UC Botanical Garden (1997-1998).

While an accomplished scientist and administrator, Carmichael also understood the importance of building public awareness and understanding of science. He was director of UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science from 1996 to 2003, where he saw the organization through many advances, including the creation of the outdoor exhibit, Forces that Shape the Bay, where visitors can experience the geologic forces that shaped ‑ and continue to reshape ‑ the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Ian made an instantaneous, dramatic and indelible impact on the Lawrence Hall of Science within weeks of being appointed director, initiating a major reorganization that commenced a new era of internal collaboration, coherence and programmatic innovation that previously had not been possible on an institution-wide basis.” said Craig Strang, associate director at the hall. “He will be greatly missed by all those he inspired and whose lives were enriched by his great generosity of spirit.”

Born in London, England, on March 29, 1930, Carmichael attended boarding school until age 17, when he was enrolled at a co-ed school in Connecticut. During the next year and a half, he traveled to Cuba, the Colorado School of Mines, and back to England, where he joined the British army.

 He then attended Cambridge University, graduating in 1954 with a B.A. in geology. Following a stint as a prospecting geologist in northern Ontario, he enrolled in the Imperial College of Science in the University of London, from which he obtained his Ph.D. in 1960.

After lecturing for several years at Imperial College, he joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1965, and, although he retired in 2004, remained active on campus until his death. He became a Professor of the Graduate School in 2003, when he received the Berkeley Citation.

For his research contributions, Carmichael was named a fellow of the Royal Society of London, was a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Geochemical Society and Mineralogical Society of America, and an honorary fellow of the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain. He also received the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America, the Murchison Medal from the Geological Society of London, the Schlumberger Medal from the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain, the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America, and the Bowen Award from the American Geophysical Union.

He was editor-in-chief and executive editor to the prestigious journal Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology from 1973 to 1990.

Carmichael is survived by his brother Keith Carmichael of London, England; daughter Deborah Carmichael of Concord, Calif.; son Graham Carmichael of Tucson, Ariz.; daughter Anthea Carmichael of Berkeley, California; and six grandchildren, Andrea, Colleen, Alexander, Olivia, Ian and Calvin. His son, Alistair, preceded him in death.”

A memorial service open to the public is scheduled for 6 p.m., Friday, Oct. 21, at the Lawrence Hall of Science.