Profiles of Notable New Mexico Geologists

Wolf Elston

Wolfgang (Wolf) Elston:

Born: August 13 1928, Berlin, Germany

Dr. Wolfgang Elston is Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of New Mexico (UNM). For over sixty years, Wolf has dedicated his life to the study of volcanic rocks in New Mexico and around the world. Wolf’s contributions to the study of the regional geology of Southwestern New Mexico and ash-flow calderas have inspired students and geologists from around the country. Today, Wolf continues to work on the geology of the Bushveld Complex of South Africa, working with his last graduate student (of many) at UNM. He is also a frequent lecturer on the New Mexico Humanities Project circuit, where he discusses his own experiences as a child refugee from Nazi Germany, in order to motivate students to overcome bullying and prejudice in school.

“The little things in life defeat me,”he murmured, trying to shuffle through some stubborn pieces of paper refusing to become unstuck from each other in his lap. We were just settling down to begin the Notable New Mexico Geologists interview and, although I didn’t know Dr. Wolfgang Elston well yet, a brief glance over the warm, cozy living room where we were sitting made it clear to any outsider that very little in Wolf’s life has been able to defeat him.  His shelves are filled with books on Nixon, Stalin, Churchill, and Rome. Southwestern pottery and African décor dot the bookcases and table tops, remnants of the extensive travels that have taken Wolf from Germany to England, New York, Texas, South Africa, New Mexico, and many places in between. His life is as varied and unpredictable as the geology he has so dedicatedly studied over the past sixty years.   

Wolf was born in Berlin, Germany on August 13, 1928. Not having had the opportunity to “pick his ancestors”, Wolf was the only “non-Aryan” child in a Nazi elementary school in pre-World War II Berlin. Although Wolf came from Jewish ancestry, his family did not practice the Jewish faith. However, this was not enough to stop the bullying and tormenting Wolf had to endure as a small child. Wolf still recalls the night of November 9, 1938 when, at the age of ten, he witnessed firsthand Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. During raids by Nazi storm troopers and Hitler Youths, thousands of Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues were destroyed while countless Jewish civilians were killed, arrested, or taken away to concentration camps. “They were terrible times,” Wolf recalls.

With the help of distant relatives, Quakers, and kind strangers, ten-year-old Wolf and his older brother became refugees, fleeing to England. There, he and his brother spent six years, mostly in a boarding school for refugee children run by a dedicated group of women who had been leaders of a women’s movement in Germany before Hitler. When the European war broke out a few months later, they anxiously waited through bombings and blackouts for news of their parents, who had stayed behind in Germany. After months of not hearing from their parents, a telegram from Spain arrived on their mother’s birthday, March 21, 1941. It read, “We’re out and on our way to America.”

Wolf still fondly recalls the look of shock on his mother’s face when they were reunited in New York in 1945, more than six years after being separated. She had said good-bye to a cute 10-year old, and here she was confronted by a gangling and disheveled teenager. “I hadn’t been out of my clothes for four nights and was badly in need of a shower, and even a shave at that age.”

With his family again reunited and the difficult years behind him, Wolf settled down into life in America. He attended the City College of New York where he first became interested in geology. As a child, Wolf says he was always interested in “dinosaurs and stuff like that”. In college, he was sure that he wanted to major in some sort of science, but was still having trouble deciding on a subject.

His first experience with geology was a required course in physical geology that Wolf describes as “terrible”. Wolf remembers the professor as “Dr. Somebody”, who held a degree in education, not geology, and “wasn’t a very good educator.” He describes his Teaching Assistant for the class as being equally as incompetent. One of the assistant’s most notable blunders was on a class field trip. During the trip, the students came upon some rocks splattered with a bit of red barn paint. When a fellow student showed the assistant the rocks, he proceeded to give a long lecture on jasper, much to the amusement of Wolf and his peers. 
With his first experience in geology tarnished by the inadequacies of his teachers, Wolf disregarded any offers for further geology courses. However, one day a geology student gave him a tip that an upcoming Field Camp would be an easy 3-credit class, the only requirement being extensive hiking in the woods. Being an avid hiker, Wolf immediately signed up for the class. As his first experience in hands-on field work, the class gave Wolf a true sense of what it would mean to be a geologist. “That’s when I got hooked,” he recalls. “The school offered an advanced field course the next year, so I took it, and that’s when I changed my major to geology.”

Wolf graduated with the Ward Medal in Geology and Honors in Geology from the City College of New York in 1949. The college immediately hired him to teach two night classes in Physical Geology, mostly attended by ex-GIs. He was the youngest person in the classroom. The experience was eye opening and, according to Wolf, a great way to learn about his subject matter. “You think you know something when you’re a senior, and then you start explaining it to other people and you find out how ignorant you really are.”

While teaching, he attended Columbia University for graduate school. In 1950, a passion for field work led him to accept a Fellowship from the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources. Pat Callaghan, the Bureau director, was looking for graduate students to work on field projects of interest to the Bureau. Most involved volcanic rocks. As Wolf remembers, “I knew nothing about volcanic rocks. I had never been west of the Mississippi. In fact, I had never even been to the Mississippi.” But his lack of job experience did not hold him back. Wolf signed up for the work in New Mexico at a salary of exactly one dollar per month. Payments of $5 per diem for expenses had to feed, in order, a 1936 Dodge, a hungry field assistant from his alma mater, and himself. For three field seasons, Wolf mapped the Dwyer Quadrangle between Deming and Silver City, a virtually blank spot on the geological map of New Mexico. The area was near the Chino Copper Mine, where erosion of the volcanic cover had revealed a multi-billion dollar ore body. The work involved working out the relationships of volcanic rocks in the area, and identifying areas of volcanic cover thin enough to indicate older instances of mineralization and possible locations of other large ore bodies. Wolf began to wonder where the volcanic rocks had come from, not having seen a volcano anywhere near the locations he was mapping. Sheets of siliceous volcanic rocks became the focus of his doctoral work. He began reading literature on these rocks and found that they had been misidentified as lava flows all around the United States and elsewhere. They are now interpreted as ash-flow tuffs aka ignimbrites.   

In the meantime, the Korean War had broken out and Wolf knew the Army Draft Order would come calling soon. He finally turned in his manuscript to the Bureau and defended his dissertation. On July 6, 1953, Wolf received his PhD from Columbia University as a Nathaniel Lord Britton Scholar and on July 7, he was drafted into the Army.

For the next two years, Wolf was a private in the United States Army. He spent most of his time at Fort Lee in Virginia. Before that, he had married Lorraine Hind of Chicago, a journalist who eventually got a job with the Army Public Information Office. All the while, he was thinking about the problem of trying to identify the source of the volcanic rocks from his days in the Dwyer quad.

When he left the Army, a partial summer remained and he was assigned by the Bureau to do a quick reconnaissance map of the Virden Quadrangle, west of Silver City. The 30-minute quadrangle was a large area, and he had  only five weeks to map the entire area. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) was compiling a geological map of New Mexico and needed blank spots in the state to be filled. “That whole thing was a disaster,” recalls Wolf. “There were horrible mistakes made.” The rushed nature of the project made accurate mapping a “mission impossible.” Nevertheless, the map was published with Wolf’s name, a project that occasionally came back to haunt him.  Geologists from mining companies looked for porphyries that don’t exist, but were included in the map after faulty alterations by somebody in Washington D.C. Wolf was the first to be blamed.

Wolf’s first full-time teaching job, after the Army, was at Texas Tech College (now University) in Lubbock, Texas, between 1956-1957. While teaching at Texas Tech, he kept his summer job with the Bureau, working on mineral resources of the “boot hill” country of Hidalgo County.

In 1957, his wife, who was then working for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, became fed up with West Texas (“You’re either a Texan or you’re not, and we were not”, remembers Wolf), and encouraged Wolf to apply to apply for teaching positions at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and the University of Arizona. As Wolf remembers, “those were the days before affirmative action. Jobs were passed around by the grapevine.” In other words, sending in an inquiry letter would do nothing to override the grapevine channel of giving jobs to friends. On a Sunday, Wolf tore up the inquiry letters written the previous day. However, in a stroke of good luck, UNM was one of the first institutions to advertise vacancies nationally in Geotimes, with an ad that appeared that Monday Wolf applied, was hired on 1957, and moved to Albuquerque. He still lives in the house Lorraine and he designed that year and where they raised two fine sons.  

Upon arriving at UNM, Wolf was still pondering where volcanic formations were coming from. During this time, the space race between the United States and Russia was well under way, and a big question on everyone’s mind was, ‘What caused the craters in the moon?’ Thinking that many craters found on the moon were too large to be of volcanic origin (the Valles Caldera, the largest then-known volcanic crater-like feature on Earth, was only 20 kilometers across, much smaller than many moon craters), leading scientists attributed these moon craters to impacts by asteroids and comets. Wolf recognized that, to this day, some of these are in Earth- (and Moon-) crossing orbits but that this did not preclude the possibility that other lunar craters were of volcanic or volcano-tectonic origin. With this alternative in mind, he applied for a small NASA grant to study the Mogollon Plateau, a ring of mountains in southwestern New Mexico, approximately 125 km across, north of Silver City. It surrounds a basin, source of the Gila River. With this exciting new research project in front of him, Wolf went on sabbatical from UNM from 1964-1965, moved his family to Silver City, and began mapping the geology of the region.

Wolf interpreted the area as a large ring complex, analogous to the one described by USGS geologists Robert Smith and Roy Bailey at the Valles Caldera. A ring complex would indicate a large batholith underlying the Mogollon Plateau. It had collapsed in its last stages and made a big volcano-tectonic depression with an edge of mountainous rim intrusions. Superimposed Valles-type calderas were the sources of the mysterious ignimbrite sheets. This was confirmed by later work. However, exploration of the Moon showed that impacts were responsible for large lunar craters.

In the meantime, while this work was still being completed, Wolf advanced up the academic ladder and received more grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and others. His work attracted graduate students to UNM’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Consequently, Wolf has supervised about 50 master’s theses and PhD dissertations over the years.

Despite having a long career in geology already behind him, one of Wolf’s largest research projects had not yet been brought to his attention. In 1985, Wolf was contacted by David Twist, a researcher at the Institute for the Geologic Research of the Bushveld Complex at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. The Bushveld Complex, 400 km in diameter, is best known for its layered mafic rocks and associated ore deposits. It also includes the world’s largest assemblage of siliceous rocks, long interpreted to be volcanic. Twist was familiar with the Bushveld work of one of Wolf’s former students, Rodney Rhodes, who had been killed in a tragic car accident in 1975. On the basis of extensive work on undoubted siliceous volcanic rocks in New Mexico, Rhodes had concluded that the siliceous Bushveld rocks were part of the Earth’s crust that had been melted an asteroidal impact, over 2 billion years ago. Twist invited Wolf to come down to South Africa, to see for himself. Wolf found the siliceous Bushveld rocks to be unlike anything previously seen in geology and came to agree with Rhodes. Between 1985 and 2008, he has been to South Africa nine times, guided by local geologists. The origin of these rocks is still highly controversial

In 2013, Wolf’s health is failing at age 85. He is still working, although he has been officially retired from UNM since 1992. For 63 years, he has worked on siliceous rocks in New Mexico. A field geologist at heart, Wolf was among the last of a breed of geologists who relied on a hammer, a pair of boots, and a polarising microscope to “beat the truth” out of rocks. He argues that “a computer model will tell you that something is possible or impossible, but it doesn’t tell you what actually happened.” When asked where he sees the future of his field moving, he replied, “Well I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re losing touch with the ground truth. If you just grind rocks up into powder, put them in black boxes, and then try to figure out what made them, you may get a funny answer. We’re learning more and more about less and less.” 

In addition to his work in geology, one of Wolf’s current interests is as a lecturer on the New Mexico Humanities Project circuit. In 2011, he spoke to over 3,000 kids on his experiences as a child refugee and the importance of discouraging bullying in America’s classrooms. “Who were the Nazis?” I ask the kids. “They were a bunch of big bullies.”

Wolf has published numerous articles highlighting his extensive research in the field, among the more recent, “The ignimbrite flareup in Southwestern New Mexico: What have we learned these last 50 years?” (2001) and “When batholiths exploded: the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field, Southwestern New Mexico” (2008). He also started a new volcanology program at UNM in collaboration with distinguished volcanologists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Wolf has served as president of the New Mexico Geological Society (NMGS) and the Albuquerque Geological Society. He is proud of his honorary membership in NMGS and the guidebook (1988) dedicated to him that year. Former students organized symposia in his honor at NM Museum of Natural History and Science (2001) and the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (1995). He was invited to spend sabbatical leaves from UNM at the USGS Volcanoes Observatory in Hawaii and at universities in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. He took these opportunities to extend his studies of volcanic rocks beyond the American Southwest.

Anytime Wolf’s name is mentioned around New Mexico, there is no doubt that he has left a powerful impression on New Mexican geology. Many of his colleagues and students fondly recall every moment spent with Wolf in the field. Dr. Larry Crumpler, Associate Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and Curator of Volcanology and Space Sciences at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, still remembers a long day spent on a field site with Wolf:

“Wolf was field checking my work on the plateau north of Mount Taylor. At the end of the day as we worked our way off of the plateau, Wolf decided to take a nap in the seatless, unpadded back of the old Geology Department Bronco. The roads were rocky, as roads on old lava flows tend to be, and even though Wolf’s head was bouncing on the hard metal sides of the vehicle as it jolted along mile after mile, he slept on blissfully. Then we got to the edge of the plateau and started down. He continued to sleep peacefully. In those days, there was a series of sharp switchbacks that wound down the side of the mesa with corresponding road cuts. On one of these switchbacks, there was a show of some “color” or whitish ash, which was probably an exposure of the East Grants Ridge rhyolites ash fall. Even though Wolf was sound asleep for miles across the plateau, he immediately jerked awake, pointed at the white outcrop, and shouted ‘What’s that?!’ Apparently, he has a sixth sense for anything more silicic than andesite!

Jayne Aubele and I used to dread going on long field trips like that with Wolf. Not because he was no fun to be around, but for the opposite reason. We used to complain that by the time the trip was over our “smile muscles” were tired. The trip was a non-stop tour de force of Wolf’s collection of anecdotes and stories, most with some sort of punchline. After hours, sometimes days of smiling at his wisecracks, with continual grins on our faces, the face muscles just got tired!”

According to Wolf, his motivation to stay in geology all of these years stems from a childlike curiosity about the world around him. As Wolf says, “I’ve never quite grown up I think. Little kiddies will ask ‘why is the grass green and why is the sky blue?’ The world is full of wonders for them, but they will lose the ability to be amazed. Me? I’ve never got over this childish astonishment over the way things are.”

— Angelica Perry

References:

  1. Elston, W.E., 2001, The ignimbrite flareup in southwestern New Mexico: what have we learned these last 50 years?, in Crumpler, L.S. and Lucas, S.G., eds.,Volcanology in New Mexico: New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 18, p.49-67.
  2. Elston, Wolfgang E. (Wolf), 2008, When batholiths exploded: The Mogollon-Datil volcanic field, southwestern New Mexico, in: Geology of the Gila Wilderness - Silver City area, Mack, Greg; Witcher, James, Lueth, Virgil W., New Mexico Geological Society, Guidebook, 59th Field Conference, pp. 117-128.

Specialties:

Earth Science, Stratigraphy, Volcanology, Economic Geology, Planetary Geology

Keywords:

ignimbrite calderas, geology of southwestern New Mexico, geology Project, volcanology, Bushveld Complex, South Africa, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources,  Holocaust, New Mexico Humanities Project