Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:39 PM on Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Refuge biologist wins national award for science leadership

Staff Writer

When people think of scientific leadership, coordinating the rescue of two technicians from a remote island in the Aleutian Chain a half-hour before an ancient volcano erupted might not come to mind, but that's one of the accomplishments that helped Jeff Williams, unit biologist for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, win the $50,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's award for Science Leadership.

Williams, based in Homer, got a medal on a ribbon for his service to science, but the actual cash goes to keep Maritime Refuge science programs going in a time of lean federal budgets.

Last week, Williams picked up his medal at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Atlanta. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ash presented Williams with the honor. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska also took home two other awards from the conference, the Rachel Carson Individual Award, to Jeff Olsen, Conservation Genetics Lab, and the Rachel Carson Group Award to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Biology Team of Dr. John Morton, Dr. Edward Berg (retired), Mark Laker, Rick Ernst, Dr. Dawn Magness, Matthew Bowser, Todd Eskelin and Toby Burke.

"It's a great honor," Williams said. "I appreciate everybody nominating me. We're going to do good things with the award and move forward, keep pushing on."

One project the award will continue funding is studies of Kasatochi Volcano, an island 25 miles from Adak in the western Aleutian Islands. For 12 years before Kasatochi erupted in 2008, scientists had compiled valuable information on the wildlife, vegetation and ecology of the island. Historically dormant, in August 2008 the volcano started to rumble.

Williams kept in close communication with two technicians at a field camp. When seismic tremors became constant, Williams knew he had to evacuate the scientists.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter couldn't make it because of a cracked windshield, so Williams got a fisherman in his 40-foot boat to attempt a rescue. The technicians had an 11-foot inflatable skiff and loaded all their gear and data. Fortunately, the fishing boat got there and rescued the techs. A half hour later, Kasatochi erupted. The eruption buried the island in up to 100 feet of volcanic ash. Pyroclastic flows of 700-degree mud, ash and rock roared down Kasatochi's flanks, seemingly obliterating all life.

"It's as close to the moon as I'll ever get," said Maritime Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty.

"We got this great data set beforehand," Williams said. "We got our people off safely. Now it's this great opportunity to do an interdisciplinary science project in response to ecosystem disturbance."

Delehanty and Refuge Supervisory Biologist Heather Renner nominated Williams for the Science Leadership award.

"This Kasatochi Volcano issue in particular was something noted in the nomination," Delehanty said. "It's the only one in the world where we have quite a bit of pre-eruption data."

One thing scientists are discovering is how resilient life can be. Mud and ash buried some vegetation, protecting it from intense heat, and roots regenerated. Other plant life in protected coves also survived.

"It's a great living laboratory, particularly for geologists," Williams said. "I won't even say real time. I'll say sped-up time."

Educated at Colorado State University, Williams came to Alaska for a seasonal biological job 22 years ago and wound up staying. He's married to another refuge biologist, Brie Drummond. They have a 5-month-old girl Williams said is doomed to be a biologist.

With his area of responsibility the Aleutian Islands, Williams also coordinates another important Maritime Refuge program: scientific research on the M/V Tiglax, the research vessel based in Homer that serves the widespread islands of the Aleutian Chain. He works with up to 100 scientists from other agencies and universities, helping them get from point A to point B to do their work in the international treasure of a protected marine and island environment.

"We're doing whatever we can to get science done so people understand what great resources the people of the United States have," Williams said. "That's what we try to do. That's what the award's recognizing — that we're pretty efficient at doing that."

That's why Delehanty nominated Williams for the award.

"He's a great scientist and a great biologist," Delehanty said. "Just a fine leader of our activities at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.