Kirk D. McIntosh, marine seismologist and Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Geophysics in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, died on June 1st, 2017.
Kirk McIntosh, a talented marine seismologist who specialized in mapping and imaging deep-sea trenches, continental margins, and mountain belts, died unexpectedly in Austin at the age of 59, after an 18-month battle with leukemia. Kirk was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, the son of a cryogenic engineer and a homemaker. He received a BSc in Geophysical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in 1980, then began his career as an exploration geophysicist at Atlantic Richfield in Plano, TX. In 1986 he left the petroleum industry for graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There, under Eli Silver’s supervision, Kirk investigated the tectonics of the California margin and the Costa Rica subduction zone. When he finished his PhD in 1992, he joined the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he spent the rest of his career working on a variety of tectonic problems in settings as structurally diverse as the Mississippi River, New Zealand, and the deep ocean trench near Taiwan.
An especially skilled hand in the field, Kirk was a sought-after collaborator. He mapped ocean morphology; he drilled for core samples into the Costa Rica subduction zone; and he dove in the Alvin submersible to a depth of 4,500 meters, using Alvin’s robotic arm to collect samples on the ocean floor. Kirk was chief or co-chief scientist on twelve major marine seismic experiments, a task involving months of prior planning and coordination both of multiple ships and scientists from different countries. He wrote his last grant between rounds of chemotherapy and succeeded in getting funding.
Kirk’s particular gift was in processing marine seismic data. In the Middle American subduction zone, he produced detailed seismic images of dewatering sediments, normal faults, and fluid seeps, documenting the stratigraphic response of the forearc to plate deformation and clarifying processes of sediment underplating and seamount subduction. In his (co-led) active-source seismic study of the collision that created Taiwan, a collision between the Luzon arc and the rifted margin of the South China Sea, Kirk demonstrated that the extensional faults and crustal blocks that form when a new ocean opens also play a large role when oceans close, in this case forming a new mountain belt.
Kirk was responsible for the innovation of adapting deep-ocean imaging techniques to investigate continental structure. His project in Lake Nicaragua examined a paradigmatic forearc basin with high-resolution “marine” seismic techniques; another more recent project on the Mississippi River near New Madrid located faults related to intracontinental historic earthquakes. Whatever the location, Kirk’s scientific claims, supported with high-quality imaging data, were careful, clear, and solidly logical.
An easy-going and humble man, Kirk was also sociable, opening his house to relatives, friends, and students. He was an enthusiastic gourmand, and he successfully imitated at home the dishes he had sampled on his travels around the world. But Kirk was above all a dedicated husband and father, and his family was always his foremost concern. He was simply a great human being. He is survived by his wife, Diana Chavez McIntosh, whom he married in 1989; his daughter, Julia McIntosh, a graduate student in hydrology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX; and his son, Victor McIntosh, a sophomore at Concordia University in Austin, TX.