William R. Dickinson explored the San Pedro River basin near Camp Grant, Arizona, in the mid-1980s.

Courtesy of George Davis

William R. Dickinson, a leader in the “plate tectonics revolution” that re-formed our view of how geological forces transform Earth, died last week while on an archaeological field trip to Tonga. He was 83.

Dickinson was an emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona. He came to Arizona in 1979 and served as head of the Department of Geosciences from 1986 to 1991, when he formally retired.

He began his academic career at Stanford University, where he earned his doctorate in geology in 1958 and was a faculty member until his move to the UA.

He was honored by Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences last month with its inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award.

In presenting the award, Dean Pamela Matson called Dickinson “a thought leader in relating plate tectonics to the accumulation of sediment in Earth’s major sedimentary basins, and is widely recognized as the father of modern sedimentary basin analysis.”

Dickinson also applied his geological expertise to archaeology, using sand found in pottery sherds to track the migration of humans into the Pacific between 1200 and 750 B.C.

Dickinson continued to research and publish after his retirement.

He was on an archaeological field trip to Fiji and Tonga when he died in his sleep on July 21.

Dickinson was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Penrose Medal, the highest honor given by the Geological Society of America.

He also received the society’s geoarchaeology award.

George Davis, regents professor emeritus of geosciences at UA, said Dickinson’s move to Arizona was “one of those recruitments heard ’round the world — an affirmation that really big things were going on in geosciences at the UA.”

For Dickinson, it meant an opportunity to “see clearly the implications of plate tectonics, especially how it plays out in continental mountain belts and affirming that in the field,” Davis said.

“He worked at this huge regional-to-global scale on plate tectonics, but he did so by paying really close attention to the details and mineralogy of sedimentary rocks.”

“Those who step up and do tectonics are individuals who accept and love the fact that they have to own a gigantic literature and integrate all different kinds of knowledge and facts from most of the subdisciplines to come up with something that is unifying.”

Dickinson did all that while taking his turn as department head and mentoring students, Davis said.

A UA News story said Dickinson was principal adviser to 42 master’s students and 43 doctoral students during his career.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.