By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
Ernie Anderson’s resume reads like a syllabus for a college course in advanced Geology. He has been at the forefront of almost every major geological research project or discovery in the United States for 60 years (and counting.) But to hear him tell it, it was mostly luck.
“I’m a Depression baby,” he says, “and no one comes away from that without indelible effects. I’m fiscally conservative and conservation-minded. Today, a lot of people are really struggling, and it feels almost like the Depression days again.” Anderson was born the younger of two boys to Swedish immigrant parents, who came to America to escape harsh childhoods, looking for a better life – and found it. “They were hard-working, full of integrity, but lacked any real formal education,” says Anderson. Perhaps that was the very reason why pursuing educational goals became so important to the Anderson family, and ones both their boys were expected to achieve.
Anderson’s brother obtained a doctorate in Theology and dedicated his life to the ministry, while Anderson pursued the sciences, although it started out the other way around. “The church turned out to be a major influence in my life,” says Anderson, who, as a boy, attended an “extremely conservative, almost fundamentalist Scandinavian church.” Anderson’s older brother was the rough, rebellious one, so the family focused on the younger son, deciding that he would pursue the ministry, and even set him up with a scholarship. “I never would have gone to college without the church,” he recalls, “but it frightened me. Maybe it was rebellion, but the first chance I got, I applied to a small Liberal Arts college, and that changed my life.”
It was while at Ohio’s Marietta College that the axes aligned for Anderson, literally. “I took a course in Comparative Religions at the same time I took a course in Historical Geology,” says Anderson, who pulls out a sheet of paper and draws a diagram to illustrate. “I started to see the coaxes of man’s belief in many gods down to the one as the rise in scientific knowledge took place.” The juxtaposition coalesced in Anderson’s mind, and it shaped the course of his educational pursuits, even if it was a bit rocky at the outset. “I wasn’t a good student at first, partied, played sports – football and on the college rowing team – eked by academically. I only took Geology because my fraternity brothers told me it was an easy A.”
As luck would have it, Anderson “absolutely fell in love with Geology. I had a natural curiosity.” And Marietta had a one-man geology department, where, “for whatever reason, he took a special interest in me. It was the first time someone believed in me, and he encouraged and helped me go to graduate school.” Anderson packed up his new wife and headed to the University of Montana, where once again he struggled initially to get his footing. “I had been poorly prepared for a big university. They actually wanted me to leave, but I had a teaching assistantship contract, so they were forced to give me an option.”
Anderson took that second chance and ran with it, becoming so single-minded and focused on his studies that his marriage failed. “It was a sad pattern in my life for many years,” he says. “As I excelled academically and professionally, I failed in all my personal relationships.” But Anderson did so well, he actually “broke the curve in field-related geology,” impressing his once skeptical professors to the point that they helped him get into Washington University in Missouri so he could pursue his PhD.
It was the late 1950s, at a time when a new subdivision of geology was forming, and Anderson joined a mapping team funded by a NSF Grant Proposal in the Ozarks. While there, Anderson’s keen observational skills led him to what turned out to be a massive discovery: the rocks he was studying had characteristics of “ash flow tuffs,” a brand new scientific discovery in the geology field of rocks dating back over one and a half billion years. “I made the connection,” he says. “It’s called pattern recognition, and it turned out it’s something I was very good at.” That single study set in motion a host of research that turned Anderson into a kind of folk hero to the geology world, including accolades for his many ensuing publications, acknowledgements for his “pioneering work” in impressive textbooks, numerous speaking engagements, and invitations to participate in a string of high profile projects.
One such invitation was from a leader at the USGS Nevada test site for nuclear weapons, whom Anderson had met through a chance meeting while on a ski trip with a PhD advisor. “I told him about my work with the ash flow tuffs. They created a position for me as a ‘research geologist,’ to study, do reconnaissance and provide information to the Atomic Test Division so they could blow up their bombs safely.”
Another of Anderson’s high-profile accomplishments is his work with Apollo 16 and 17 astronauts, whose upcoming mission would be heavily focused on identifying, collecting and bringing back “the oldest rocks” from a moon crater’s strata for testing on Earth. “I designed and conducted teaching experiments at volcanoes in the Nevada desert for the crew. Basically, I had to evaluate and critique the soundness of their observations and interpretations. But I tell you they were fantastic. You can’t believe how smart those guys are.”
Among Anderson’s many achievements, a fun fact sticks out: while working in the 1970s to provide geological data to the Saudi Arabian government on “the mineral potential of their kingdom,” Anderson stumbled onto one of King Solomon’s gold mines. “They had so much money, we were so well funded, that we each had a Land Rover and our own driver. While being driven to a site, I was looking out the window down in a dry wash and something sparkly caught my eye.” Upon further inspection, Anderson found evidence of early mining sticking out in the visible strata layers in the wash wall. “Not just gold, but bones, and evidence of thousands of years of history embedded there.”
Anderson’s pioneering work continued throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, when he led or was involved with several Seismotectonic studies, including mapping and evaluating seismotectonic potential of “low-angle normal faults.” Anderson’s findings in Western Utah and Nevada were instrumental in the formation of a geological subdiscipline known as “Paleo Seismology, which is using geologic information to backdate the prehistoric history of faults.” Anderson is now considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the structure and tectonics of the Great Basin.
In 1998, while living in Colorado, serendipity once again played a part, but this time it was in Anderson’s personal life in the form of his future wife and life partner, Vera. “I saw an ad in the Personals,” he recalls. “It was entitled, ‘The Hot Tamale,’ and indeed she was.” It was through this relationship that Anderson discovered the Kern River Valley. Vera’s parents had moved to the valley from Pasadena in search of a “clean environment” for her brother, who had respiratory issues. “They needed clean mountain air. But they had gotten older and needed help themselves, so we sold our homes, quit our jobs in Colorado, packed up and moved here to care for them. That was in 2001. We’ve been and loved it here ever since.”
Even though Anderson “retired” in 2008, now at age 86, he shows no sign of slowing down. Aside from developing projects for local KREM students, bicycling on his errands and discovering “unique geological aspects to the valley” on daily walks with his dogs, Anderson is still doing self-funded mapping and research projects extensively, both at home and abroad. “I’m basically doing the same stuff I did while employed, just using my own money,“ he says, laughing. Anderson studies low-angle faults in and around the Mojave Desert, as well as on the Western Coast of Italy and Elba Island. “There’s a whole class of fault structures there whose very presence violates fault mechanics. I’m trying to figure out how they can exist. A lot of my work challenges the notion that these are major faults. I’m essentially challenging my own early work, but I’m not stuck in established beliefs. It’s like being a detective. I want to get it right.” Anderson does make one big distinction between how he performed his earlier work and today’s excursions. “The greatest thing about these projects is that Vera comes along and acts as my research assistant. She just makes it such a joy.”
“I had an incredible amount of lucky breaks along the way and took advantage of every one of them,” Anderson says, looking out onto the Kern River from his patio. “But to me it was never anything but a wonderful, fun experience.” Call it luck. Call it serendipity, or even the universal stars aligning. Whatever twists of fate that guided Anderson onto his life’s journey, the world, and our little slice of it here in the Kern Valley, is the better for it.