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Karen Von Damm, 1955-2008
Honored as Geochemistry Fellow
IN EARLY APRIL, chemical oceanographer Karen Von Damm of the Complex Systems Research Center (CSRC) was elected a Geochemistry Fellow by the Geochemical Society and the European Association for Geochemistry. The societies bestow the honor upon outstanding scientists who, over the years, have made a major contribution to the field of geochemistry. Von Damm, according to the citation for Geochemical Society fellowship, was “without peer” among scientists investigating the geochemistry of submarine hydrothermal systems.

Submarine venting represents a major source of chemical input to the world’s oceans, comparable to rivers, and plays a significant role in buffering both solid Earth and whole-ocean compositions on timescales that are not only geologically short but potentially relevant even to climate change.

Von Damm studied deep-sea hydrothermal systems since their discovery at mid-ocean ridges 31 years ago when she was doing her Ph.D. thesis. These underwater cracks ring the globe and are areas where Mother Earth “burps up a new skin” in a cloud of acidic black smoke, where temperatures rise to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and where giant tube worms and clams form colonies. Von Damm’s work has concentrated in the region of the East Pacific Rise at 9-10 degrees north latitude (referred to simply as “9 North”) off the coast of Central America.

Since the first discovery of submarine hydrothermal venting, the citation noted, Von Damm maintained a position at the very forefront of this fast-moving international field and has developed expertise in both the sampling and analysis of these challenging environmental fluids and in the theoretical treatment of the data obtained from those analyses. “Along the way she opened up entirely new lines of inquiry for others (certainly more than any one individual, no matter how many students they advise, could pursue) and willingly encouraged other non-hydrothermal geochemists into novel and rewarding collaborations with her group,” the citation reads.

Von Damn challenged the understanding of what controls vent-fluid compositions, geologically, and led field campaigns to different parts of the world ocean to validate those hypotheses. The Geochemistry Society fellowship is the latest in a long list of accolades and past leadership experiences accumulated by Von Damm throughout her career, including many stints as chief scientist on cruises to the East Pacific Rise, election as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, service as the assistant director of the CSRC, service on the Advisory Committee for the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and past chair of the national steering committee for Ridge Inter-Disciplinary Global Experiments. The latter is a NSF initiative supporting multidisciplinary research investigating mechanisms of how crust is created at mid-oceanic ridges, and how seawater chemistry and biological communities are influenced by these processes.

Karen Von Damm passed away on Friday, August 15, 2008 after battling an illness for several months. A moving tribute to Karen can be found online at
by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Fall 2008 issue of EOS Spheres.