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W. Steven Holbrook

Professor and Head of Department

My work uses geophysical techniques (primarily, but not exclusively, seismology) to examine Earth processes. Over the past few years I’ve been focusing on critical zone geophysics, using geophysical data to explore and understand the Earth’s “breathing skin,” where water, life, and rock converge ( My group is addressing fundamental questions in critical zone science, including: What is the structure of Earth’s regolith at landscape scales, and what controls that structure?, and How does regolith structure impact the storage and movement of water in terrestrial environments? Over the course of my career I’ve made contributions to the understanding of continental margins, volcanic arcs, and methane hydrate systems, and I was the main driver behind the development of “seismic oceanography” (the use of reflection seismology to image thermohaline fine-structure within the oceans). I’ve spent a total of about 1.5 years at sea on various research vessels. My professional career has included stints at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Wyoming, and I’m happy to have joined the excellent Department of Geosciences at VT.


Ph.D., Geophysics, Stanford University, 1989

M.S., Geophysics, Stanford University, 1985

B.S., Geoscience, Penn State, 1982

I am interested in using geophysical techniques to understand how the Earth's "critical zone" - the upper 10's to ~100 meters beneath our feet - originated and functions in terrestrial environments. This work includes landscape-scale geophysical surveys (seismic refraction, ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity), downhole geophysical logging, and airborne EM surveys. I've worked in sites from California to South Carolina, including seven Critical Zone Observatory sites. This work is inherently interdisciplinary, working at the convergence of geophysics, geomorphology, hydrology, geology and low-temperature geochemistry.


Working with students and postdocs is the best part of my job. Over the years I've mentored 10 postdocs and 30 students in "Team Holbrook," including 2 undergrads, 16 M.S. students, and 12 Ph.D. students -- all of whom have gone on to successful careers in industry or academia (

My current group includes:

  • M.S. student Kira Dickey. Project: airborne EM data in Yellowstone
  • Postdoc Sylvain Pasquet. Project: inversion of surface-wave data for critical zone structure.

Selected publications:

(* indicates graduate or post-doctoral advisee first author)

  • Moon, S., J. T. Perron, S. J. Martel, W. S. Holbrook, and J. St Clair, 2017, A model of three-dimensional topographic stresses with implications for bedrock fractures, surface processes, and landscape evolution, Journal of Geophysical Research - Earth Surface, 122, 10.1002/2016jf004155, 823-846.
  • *Pasquet, Sylvain, W.S. Holbrook, B.J. Carr, and K.W.W. Sims, 2016, Geophysical imaging of shallow degassing in a Yellowstone hydrothermal system, Geophysical Research Letters, 43, 12,027–12,035, doi:10.1002/2016GL071306.
  • *Fortin, W.F.J., W.S. Holbrook, and R.W. Schmitt, 2016, Mapping turbulent diffusivity associated with oceanic internal lee waves offshore Costa Rica, Ocean Science, 12, 601-612, doi:10.5194/os-12-601-2016.
  • Holbrook, W. S., S. N. Miller, and M. A. Provart, 2016, Estimating snow water equivalent over long mountain transects using snowmobile-mounted ground-penetrating radar, Geophysics, 81, no. 1,WA183-WA193. doi: 10.1190/geo2015-0121.1.
  • *St. Clair, J., S. Moon, W. S. Holbrook, J. T. Perron, C. S. Riebe, S. Martel, B. Carr, C. Harman, K. Singha and D. Richter, 2015, Geophysical imaging reveals topographic stress control of bedrock weathering, Science, v. 250, p. 534-538, DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2210, 30 October 2015.
  • Parsekian, A.D., K. Singha, B. Minsley, W.S. Holbrook and L. Slater, 2015, Multiscale geophysical imaging of the critical zone, Reviews of Geophysics, v. 53, p. 1-26, DOI: 10.1002/2014RG000465.
  • Holbrook, W.S., C.S. Riebe, M. Elwaseif, J.L. Hayes, D. Harry, K. Reeder, A. Malazian, A. Dosseto, P. Hartsough, and J. Hopmans, 2014, Geophysical Constraints on Deep Weathering and Water Storage Potential in the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, DOI: 10.1002/esp.3502.
  • Holbrook, W.S., I. Fer, R.W. Schmitt, D. Lizarralde, J.M. Klymak, C. Helfrich, and R. Kubichek, 2013, Estimating turbulence dissipation in the ocean from seismic reflection images, doi:10.1175/JTECH-D-12-00140.1, Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, v. 30, p. 1767-1788, DOI: 10.1175/JTECH-D-12-00140.1.
  • Holbrook, W.S., I. Fer, and R.W. Schmitt, 2009, Images of internal tides near the Norwegian continental slope, Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L00D10, doi:10.1029/2009GL038909.
  • Lizarralde, D., G.J. Axen, H.E. Brown, J.M. Fletcher, A. González-Fernández, A.J. Harding, W.S. Holbrook, G.M. Kent, P. Paramo, F. Sutherland, and P.J. Umhoefer, 2007, Variation in styles of rifting in the Gulf of California, Nature, v. 448, p. 466–469 (26 July 2007), doi: 10.1038/nature06035.
  • *Shillington, D.J., Van Avendonk, H., W.S. Holbrook, P. Kelemen, and M. Hornbach, Composition and structure of the central Aleutian island arc from arc-parallel wide-angle seismic data, 2004, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., Vol. 5, No. 10, Q10006,, 21 October 2004.
  • Holbrook, W.S., P. Páramo, S. Pearse, and R.W. Schmitt, 2003, Thermohaline fine structure in an oceanographic front from seismic reflection profiling, Science, v. 301, p. 821-824. (See accompanying “Perspective” article by B. Ruddick, “Sounding out ocean fine structure,” on p. 772-773 of same issue.)
  • Holbrook, W.S., D. Lizarralde, S. McGeary, N. Bangs, and J. Diebold, 1999, Structure and composition of the Aleutian island arc and implications for continental crustal growth, Geology, v. 27, p. 31–34.
  • Holbrook, W.S., H. Hoskins, W.T. Wood, R.A. Stephen, D. Lizarralde, and the Leg 164 Science Party, 1996, Methane hydrate and free gas on the Blake Ridge from vertical seismic profiling, Science, v. 273, p. 1840–1843.
  • Holbrook, W.S., and P.B. Kelemen, 1993, Large igneous province on the U.S. Atlantic margin and implications for magmatism during continental breakup, Nature, v. 364, p. 433–436. (see also accompanying News & Views article, Margins declassified, by J.C. Mutter, Nature, v. 364, p. 393–394.)

I have taught courses in oceanography, reflection seismology, and introductory geophysics.

  • The Walter Munk Award for Distinguished Research in Oceanography, 2013.
  • Fellow, American Geophysical Union, elected 2012.
  • Distinguished Lecturer, NSF-GeoPRISMS program, 2011-2012.
  • President’s Award for Excellence in Research (and UW Presidential Speaker), University of Wyoming, 2010.
  • Extraordinary Merit for Research, College of Arts and Sciences, UW, 2002, 2005.
  • University of Wyoming Excellence in Advising Award, 2003.
  • Ocean Drilling Program (JOI/USSAC) Distinguished Lecturer, 2001-2002.
  • Fellow, Geological Society of America, 1998