Leopold, Luna

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Luna Leopold

Born Luna Bergere Leopold, October 8, 1915, in Albuquerque, NM; died of emphysema and congestive heart disease, February 23, 2006, in Berkeley, California. Scientist. Luna Leopold transformed the study of rivers into a science. After editing a groundbreaking book written by his father, one of the United States' leading conservationists, Leopold followed in his footsteps by measuring and describing the structure of rivers and discovering that they followed predictable rules. "How does water move, and when it moves, what happens? How does land shape water flow and how does water flow shape land? These are among the central issues that Luna solved," Char Miller, an environmental historian at Trinity University in San Antonio, told Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times.

The son of Aldo Leopold, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service, Luna Leopold shared his father's belief that humans should live in harmony with the land and his skill at observing the natural world. His mother, Estelle Bergere, was a descendant of the Lunas, a prominent New Mexico family. Leopold studied widely at a time when many professions were not as specialized as they are now, and he combined his many skills to become a pioneer in studying rivers. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1936 with a civil engineering degree and joined the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, working in hydrology, the study of water in nature, which was an emerging field at the time. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers weather service during World War II and earned a master's degree in meteorology and physics from the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles in 1944.

When Leopold's father died in 1948, soon after getting a book deal, the younger Leopold edited his book so that it could be published the next year. The book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, is now considered a classic ecological work; it became a best-seller when it was republished in paperback in the 1960s.

After getting a doctorate in geology from Harvard in 1950, Leopold went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey and combined his geology, meteorology, and engineering training to work on rivers as a hydrologist. He became chief hydrologist for the Geological Survey in 1956, a position he held until 1966. When he began working in hydrology and geomorphology, the science of observing land formations, the fields were merely descriptive and did not use measurements.

But in the 1950s, he and Thomas Maddock Jr. observed that rivers' depth and the speed at which they flow increase as they go downstream, and that those increases happen at predictable rates. Before that, observers of rivers had assumed that most rivers behaved like the Mississippi River, which widens and slows toward its end near New Orleans. Leopold published his discoveries in a groundbreaking 1953 paper, "The Hydraulic Geometry of Stream Channels," and in the 1964 book Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology, co-written with M. Gordon Wolman and John P. Miller. Leopold was one of several people who studied the Grand Canyon in 1965 by floating down the Colorado River through the canyon for 300 miles, measuring and noting the river and canyon.

In 1969, Leopold headed an important study of the Everglades, the wetlands in southern Florida, for the Geological Survey. Local officials wanted to build an airport on 39 square miles, mostly wetlands, near the edge of Everglades National Park. Leopold's study harshly criticized the effects that pollution and development near the Everglades would have on its ecosystem. The study came out just as the United States was becoming more sensitive to environmental issues, and the debate it began attracted wide attention. In the end, a small airfield was built in spite of the objections in the study, but the plan for a larger airport was abandoned.

Leopold retired from the Geological Survey in 1972 as a senior research hydrologist and joined the University of California, Berkeley, as a professor of geology and geophysics, teaching Earth science, planetary science, and landscape architecture. While there, in 1974, he wrote a second book, Water: A Primer. He became a professor emeritus in 1987, but continued to write about hydrology and the environment. Leopold served on the boards of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law Institute. He also criticized mining in national parks and the logging industry's use of clear-cutting.

If Leopold's training was wide-ranging, his hobbies were even more so. "He also made bows and arrows, hunted and fished, rode horses, composed piano and guitar music, danced, flew planes, painted landscapes, wrote poetry, bound books, acted on stage, built furniture, claimed to cook strawberry shortcake in a camp Dutch oven, and told campfire stories," wrote Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post. He lived in Berkeley and also in a log cabin he had built himself near Pinedale, Wyoming, where he studied birds and butterflies. Leopold received the National Medal of Science in 1991 and published another book, A View of the River, in 1994. Early in the 2000s, at age 85, he led a panel that scientifically studied the restoration of wetlands in the San Francisco Bay. He continued to publish academic papers until about 2005.

His first marriage, to Carolyn Leopold Michaels, ended in divorce; his second wife, Barbara Beck Leopold, died in 2004 after 30 years of marriage. Leopold was 90 when he died in Berkeley on February 23, 2006, after suffering from emphysema and congestive heart disease. He is survived by his son, Bruce; his daughter, Madelyn; his stepson, Leverett Nelson; his stepdaughter, Carolyn T. Nelson; and two grandchildren.


Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2006, p. B10; New York Times, March 20, 2006, p. A20; Washington Post, March 5, 2006, p. C10.

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