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B. Randall Tufts (1948–2002)

Obituary reprinted by permission from Eos

Randy Tufts, an explorer who made major discoveries on Earth and beyond, died on 1 April. The date surprised no one who knew him. Nationally known for his model of environmental stewardship, which stemmed from his co-discovery of Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, Tufts more recently had turned to planetary exploration and conducted path-breaking research into the geology and geophysics of Jupiter's moon Europa.

Tufts began spelunking as a high school student, and he vowed to friends that one day he would discover a cave. As with everything he did, he committed himself completely to reaching that goal. He majored in geology at the University of Arizona and combed the region for undiscovered caves through maps, fieldwork, analysis, and of course schmoozing old-time desert rats.

During his undergraduate years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tufts faced other distractions; he became a prominent student political activist. Choosing to work within the system, he became president of the undergraduate association. By applying the same obsessive and meticulous persistence as in the cave search, he achieved reform in student rights, which was radical at the time, despite strong resistance from the university administration. After graduating in 1973, Tufts worked for a decade in social service and public policy, organizing community organizations nationwide with the federally chartered Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation. The political skills honed at school and work later proved as essential as his geological studies to the Kartchner Caverns story.

Never losing his passion for geology, Tufts continued to pursue the cave search. In 1974, with the help of college roommate Gary Tenen, he revisited a limestone hill in the Whetstone Mountains southeast of Tucson that he had first found in 1967 based on a tip from an old miner. This time the visit proved more fruitful. Following a flow of moist air aromatic with the scent of bat guano through a series of agonizingly tight crawlways, Tufts discovered what is now known as Kartchner Caverns.

Keenly aware of the vandalism that plagued other unprotected caves, Tufts realized that with discovery came an obligation and responsibility for stewardship of the resource. He and his caving partner embarked on what became a 25-year mission to find permanent protection for the cave. First they relied on a pact of strict secrecy, but soon they realized that eventual rediscovery by others was likely. They knew they needed to develop a plan to protect the pristine resource that would ensure its safety beyond their lifetimes. The fragility of the cave and its accessibility seemed to be overwhelming obstacles to protection until Tufts realized that it would make a superb tour site.

With trepidation, Tufts and Tenen approached the family that owned the land. To their great relief, they found that the Kartchners shared their respect for preservation and agreed to keep the cave a secret until it could be protected. The delicate problem of keeping potential explorers away without saying why led to interesting encounters in the desert.

On borrowed time, Tufts doggedly pursued the vision of developing a museum-quality tour cave that would be dedicated to protecting the cave and educating the public about caves and geology. After approaching the Arizona State Park Department in 1985 and receiving a less-than-reassuring response, Tufts took the plan to then-Governor Bruce Babbitt and took him through the cave. Rare for an Arizona governor, Babbitt was an environmentalist and, even rarer, had an advanced degree in geology. He elevated the cave project to the highest possible priority.

For the next 3 years, Tufts used his training in community and political organizing. He and Tenen needed to advocate, facilitate, and mediate with the Kartchner family, the Nature Conservancy, Arizona State Parks, the Arizona legislature, and local governments to keep the project on track. In 1988, the state acquired the cave. Until the park's opening in 1999 and afterward, Tufts and Tenen worked to ensure that park development would be consistent with conservation.

Tufts took a long sabbatical from his professional career in the mid-1980s, including a long around-the-world tour, in part to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. During this period, he read about Jupiter's moon Europa and the possibility that there was an ocean there. Tufts recognized the potential for life to exist there, and he decided to find out if Europa was indeed habitable.

Just as he had committed himself completely to everything necessary to find a cave, he made a similar commitment to exploring Europa. And just as his search for the cave included majoring in geology as an undergraduate, Tufts enrolled in the geosciences graduate program at the University of Arizona to begin this exploration. At the same time, he began forging links with researchers at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, especially with Richard Greenberg, a member of the imaging team for the Galileo spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, where it would obtain images of Europa.

As plans for his dissertation advanced, he had two research advisors, Victor Baker from the Department of Geosciences, and Richard Greenberg from Planetary Sciences. He did field studies of tectonics in the Mojave Desert, building expertise that he anticipated might be relevant to Europa. During Galileo's flight to Jupiter, Tufts helped interpret images of the asteroid Ida and worked the politics of astronomical nomenclature to have a crater there named Kartchner.

As Galileo images began to arrive from the Jupiter system in late 1996, Randy's attention turned at last to interpreting pictures of Europa. He discovered the 800-km-long strike-slip fault Astypalaea, and identified and characterized many other types of examples of crustal displacement. He suggested mechanisms that were later confirmed quantitatively by his colleagues, by which diurnal tidal stress could drive tectonics, including strike-slip by a walking process, and formation of the cycloidal cracks characteristic of Europa.

In the middle of the exciting 5-year period of such discovery, Tufts received his Ph.D. at age 50. His work was crucial to revealing the nature of Europa and showed that its physical setting has the potential for being hospitable to life.

Just as his search for the cave was successful, Tufts had achieved his goal for Europa as well. Next, as with Kartchner Caverns, he turned to the stewardship phase. In the last months before his illness, Tufts expressed concern that planning for upcoming spacecraft exploration of Europa's surface was not taking the possibility of biological contamination seriously enough. He understood the policy and political parallels with the cave, and his last publications (e.g., Greenberg and Tufts, 2001) addressed those concerns. The parallels between his work on the cave and planetary science are striking. The themes of commitment, exploration, discovery, and stewardship of the natural world cycled through Tufts' life. His death was widely noted and mourned, and his conservation ethic and sense of wonder were admired throughout the world.


Richard Greenberg

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA


Greenberg, R., and B. R. Tufts, Standards for prevention of biological contamination of Europa, Eos, Trans. AGU, 82, 26–28, 2001.

Originally published in Eos, Vol. 83, No. 41, 8 Oct 2002, 459. Reprinted with kind permission of Richard Greenberg and the American Geophysical Union.

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