Rolf Meissner. Credit: Institute of Geosciences

Rolf Meissner was one of the most influential Earth scientists in crustal and lithospheric research. He passed away on 4 June 2014, shortly before his 89th birthday.

Early Career

Rolf was born on 15 June 1925, in Dortmund, Germany, where he grew up and attended school, graduating from high school in 1943. After a period in the air force during World War II and a 3-year intermezzo as a musician after the war, Rolf studied meteorology and geophysics at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. He completed his Ph.D. in 1955 and then worked for 6 years managing a seismic surveying party and supervising a hydrocarbon exploration team in Europe and Africa.

Returning to academia in 1961, he became an assistant professor at the University of Frankfurt and completed a habilitation (postdoctoral university degree with lecturer qualification) on the structure of Earth’s crust in 1966. In the following years, he worked as a lecturer at the universities of Mainz and Frankfurt.

A Focus on the Moon

While he was a lecturer, Rolf wrote his first book, The Moon, a popular science review of the state of moon research before the Apollo program. The book was published in 1969, just before NASA’s first Moon landing.

Rolf then became a visiting professor at the University of Hawai`i, where he worked on seismic data gathered by the first Apollo missions to the Moon. He belonged to the team that identified moonquakes. At this time, he was appointed professor of geophysics at the University of Kiel in Germany.

Leadership at Kiel

Rolf served as head of the Institute of Geophysics (now the Institute of Geosciences) at the University of Kiel from 1971 to 1995. By this stage of his career, he had developed pioneering concepts for investigating Earth’s crust, was well rooted in the lunar research program of NASA, and was well known and highly respected within industry circles.

Through Rolf’s leadership, the institute became internationally recognized as a leading science research facility. He succeeded in establishing geophysics in the educational program of the University of Kiel, covering an unprecedented breadth from near-surface prospecting to planetary science. His success was founded not only on his exceptional scientific capabilities and his international standing but also on his passion and enthusiasm for science, which he was able to share with his students, coworkers, and the scientific community at large.

Work on Deep Seismic Reflection

Many major national and international research programs that developed fundamentally new knowledge on the structure and evolution of the continents were initiated in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these projects are closely tied, directly or indirectly, to Rolf’s work.

The backbone of these projects was (and is) deep seismic reflection imaging. Since the late 1960s, Rolf had repeatedly demonstrated, in pilot projects and conceptual papers, that deep seismic reflection measurements were feasible and capable of providing a wealth of geological information. He developed integrative concepts for the interpretation of these measurements and underlined the importance of petrology and rheology for understanding the seismic data and the underlying geodynamic processes. In this context, he coined such terms as seismic lamellae and crocodile tectonics, which spread throughout the community.

Three of the numerous scientific projects in which Rolf was involved are worth noting. The German Continental Reflection Seismic Program (DEKORP) was the first project to investigate the deep structure and tectonics of the Variscan crystalline crust in high resolution and in a large-scale regional context in Germany. It led to a new understanding of basic deep geological processes. The Baltic and Bothnian Echoes of the Lithosphere (BABEL) project deciphered Caledonian-Proterozoic terrane tectonics and craton formation in the Baltic Sea area. Finally, the Chinese-American-German traverse through the Tibetan Plateau, called the joint International Deep Profiling of Tibet and the Himalaya/German Depth Profiling of Tibet and the Himalayas (INDEPTH/GEDEPTH) project, carried out deep seismic research of fundamental global importance. Rolf was heavily involved with INDEPTH/GEDEPTH even after his official retirement.

Writing Textbooks

Besides his numerous, frequently cited scientific articles, Rolf’s textbooks also deserve mention. His Praxis of Seismic Field Measurements and Interpretation, coauthored by his friend Lajos Stegena and published in 1977 (in German), was the “seismic bible” for many generations of students. The Continental Crust: A Geophysical Approach, published in 1986, presented comprehensive knowledge on the continental crust and became internationally influential.

In 1999, Rolf published another popular science book, The Little Book of Planet Earth, which was translated into Chinese. Rolf’s last scientific article, published with Irina Artemieva in late 2012, was a study of the relation of crustal thickness to plate tectonics.

Leadership and Honors

Rolf’s scientific achievements were honored with many distinctions, two of which are especially worthy of mention. From 1985 to 1987, he was president of the European Geophysical Society, a predecessor of the European Geosciences Union. In this position, he promoted closer links between the American Geophysical Union and the European geoscience community.

In 1992, he was appointed honorary member of the German Geophysical Society. On this occasion, asked by a journalist for his life motto, Rolf quoted the German poet Goethe: “Tages Arbeit! Abends Gäste! Saure Wochen! Frohe Feste!” (“Daytime work! Evening guests! Hard weeks! Joyous feasts!”)

A Passion for Teaching

In a speech at an honorary colloquium for his 80th birthday, Rolf emphasized that the transfer of enthusiasm is as important as the transfer of knowledge to students studying science. This philosophy, along with his scientific accomplishments, musical talent as a pianist and an accordion player, liberal thinking, humor, and charm, brought Rolf adoration from his students and from scientists around the world.

In memory of Rolf, an international scientific symposium—From Crustal Seismology to Geodynamics—will be held at the University of Kiel on 5–6 June 2015. It will highlight present and future concepts in lithospheric research. For details, visit the symposium’s Web page.

—Wolfgang Rabbel, Institute of Geosciences, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany; email:

Citation: Rabbel, W. (2015), Rolf Meissner (1925–2014), Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO027467. Published on 6 April 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.