The UCSB and South Coast community lost one of its outstanding faculty and community members with the passing of Dr. Edward A. Keller on September 9. | Credit: Courtesy

In Memoriam | Edward A. Keller: 1942-2022

The University of California, Santa Barbara and the South Coast community lost one of its outstanding faculty and community members with the recent passing of Dr. Edward A. Keller on September 9.

Like many in the UCSB and South Coast community, we knew Ed Keller in multiple capacities — as a valued colleague, collaborator, co-author, and mentor, but most importantly as a treasured friend who readily shared his enthusiasm for life and learning. What impressed so many of those who first made his acquaintance was his generosity and genuine interest in their lives, pursuits, and well-being, along with his quick mind, easy laugh, and the range of his knowledge and interests.

Ed was born in Glendale, California, in 1942 and raised in Southern California, spending his free time as a teenager exploring the rivers, streams, and canyons of the San Bernardino Mountains. Following completion of his undergraduate studies, with a degree in mathematics, Ed took a job as a social worker in California’s Great Central Valley, but he soon developed an interest in its landscape and geology during crisscrossing trips between migrant worker camps. That experience led him to change his career path and return to school to pursue a second degree and advanced work in geology, completing an MS from the University of California, Davis, and a PhD from Purdue University. Before coming to UCSB, Dr. Keller served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina from 1973 to 1976. Ed joined the UCSB faculty in 1976, with a joint appointment in the Department of Earth Science and the newly created Environmental Studies Program, where he served several times as chair of both the Environmental Studies Program and Hydrological Science Program (which he helped establish). He was also an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Geography.

Professor Keller’s lifelong research in the earth sciences contributed to a better understanding of a wide variety of topics, including the role sedimentary and active tectonic and coastal processes play in shaping California’s landscape, particularly the mountains, rivers, and coastline of Southern California. Important areas of research included the function of wildfires in debris flows and the evaluation of landslides. His studies of active earthquakes included their frequency and magnitudes to better understand the potential hazards they posed, particularly within the Santa Barbara region. He also made fundamental contributions to the understanding of river and stream processes, including the formation of pools, and the importance of downed vegetation in forming complex habitats for fish and other aquatic species. As one of his colleagues noted, Ed had a unique ability to recognize research questions from a single site visit and formulate testable hypotheses.

The range of his scientific publications was remarkable — more than 150 scientific papers — covering a broad range of topics, many with practical applications for the management of natural resources. Professor Keller’s notable talent for scientific synthesis was reflected in the authorship or co-authorship of six textbooks covering varying aspects of earth and environmental sciences. He authored one of the most widely used textbooks in environment science, Environmental Geology, as well as a textbook on environmental hazards. He also co-authored, with one of his graduate students, the standard textbook on tectonic geomorphology, Active Tectonics. His knowledge of local and regional landforms and geological processes was shared with the general public through the publication, with the assistance of his wife, Valery, of an accessible and richly illustrated geologic tour of the south coast, Santa Barbara, Land of Dynamic Beauty: A Natural History.

Professor Keller took his teaching responsibilities as seriously as his research. Over the years, he taught courses in Engineering and Environmental Geology; Earth Surface Processes and Landforms; Geology of Yosemite Valley; Introduction to Environmental Science; Coastal Processes and Management; and Form, Process, and the Human Use of Rivers. During the course of Professor Keller’s career, he guided more than 60 PhD and master’s in science students. But he also mentored undergraduates with equal dedication. In an interview toward the end of his life, Ed explained the educational philosophy that had guided his 46 years of teaching and research at the University of California, Santa Barbara: “I strongly believe that the role of education is not to stamp a professor’s mind irresistibly on the student’s, but to stir up their own thoughts and questions; not to make them see with the professor’s eyes, but to look inquiringly and steady with their own; not to impart the student with inflexible dogma or a set amount of knowledge, but to inspire a love for truth; and not to form an outward regularity, but to tap inward springs that result in increased understanding, desire, and ability to pursue creative research and assist others through their own teaching.” The seeds of this philosophy were sown in those early years roaming the San Bernardino Mountains, and as a young social worker contemplating the landscape and geology of the Great Central Valley as he made his rounds between migrant worker camps.

For many years, Professor Keller contributed his expertise to public service, assisting various public agencies and non-governmental organizations, consulting on a variety of environmental issues, and providing expert witness testimony in legal proceedings. With his varied background and research in river processes, he served on one of the National Marine Fisheries Services’ Technical Recovery Teams, elucidating the role of groundwater and wildfire in the recovery of threatened and endangered steelhead along the central and south coast of California. Most recently, Professor Keller organized a research team at UCSB to investigate the nature and cause of the tragic Montecito debris flow of 2018, publishing with colleagues and graduate students seminal papers on processes associated with debris flows and their past and expected frequency along the south coast of Santa Barbara County. 

Aside from his academic work and community service, Ed was an avid fresh- and saltwater fisherman who regularly took friends and colleagues on fishing trips to Lake Cachuma and local coastal waters; he also enjoyed regular walks in Mission Canyon and outings with friends at the Santa Barbara Harbor to enjoy the coastal mountain views and seafood meals at local restaurants.

Professor Keller received many honors, awards, and acknowledgements for his contributions to the geologic profession and to the wider community. In 1982-83, Professor Keller served as the Hartley Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, England. In 1994, Purdue awarded Professor Keller its Outstanding Alumnus award from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (where one of us, Chancellor Yang, had the pleasure of first meeting Ed). Professor Keller’s contributions to the field of earth sciences were also recognized by his Alma Mater, Fresno State, in 1998, which honored him with a Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 2000, he was awarded the Quatercentenary Fellowship from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Professor Keller was a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, which awarded him the 2004 Don J. Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award. He was also a member of the American Geophysical Union (Hydrology Section).

Professor Keller passed away peacefully after a short illness, with his wife and family by his side, his zest for life undimmed. The lasting influence of Ed’s life and research, teaching, mentorship, and service to UCSB and the wider community will gratefully continue through his published writings, as well as through the continuing work and lives of those he mentored and inspired at UCSB and throughout our global society.

Henry T. Yang is chancellor at UC Santa Barbara, where James P. Kennett is an emeritus professor of Earth Science, and Mark H. Capelli a retired lecturer in Environmental Studies.


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