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Ronald Lyon, geologist and expert in remote sensing of Earth and moon, dies at 95

Among a class of researchers that use satellites and infrared imaging to study minerals from on high, Lyon led studies from the Amazon to the moon.

Ronald “Ron” Lyon, professor emeritus of applied Earth sciences and a vanguard geologist to use satellites to study mineral formations on Earth, the moon, and Mars, died Jan. 17, 2023, at his home in Stanford, California. He marked his 95th birthday two days prior.

Ron Lyon
Ron Lyon

In a career spanning four decades, particularly in the formative years of satellite imaging in the mid-1960s, Lyon was a pioneer of geological remote sensing, thermal-infrared analysis of minerals, and infrared absorption spectroscopy for mineral studies. These technologies still find application in the search for terrestrial mineral and energy resources, and in new outlets such as the monitoring of vegetation as proxies for global climate change. But satellites and infrared were not his only tools. Lyon recalled how, in a single 42-day stretch in the early ’70s, he and a team mapped the entire Amazon from above using a then-new technology known as “side-looking radar” borne by airplanes crisscrossing the massive river basin, according to an oral history recorded in 2000.

“Ron Lyon was an early pioneer in the use of remote sensing spectroscopy for air- and satellite-acquired mapping of the Earth’s surface. We collaborated on several interdisciplinary investigations of bedrock geology and a gradual increase in elevation of botanical zones in a high Alpine desert – the White-Inyo Range of eastern California,” remembered friend and colleague W.G. “Gary” Ernst, a professor emeritus of Earth and planetary sciences at Stanford. “Ron opened the eyes of this on-the-ground geologist to the complex interactions and subtle changes in the Earth’s critical zone. In our studies, we exulted in the iconic beauty of the natural environment, and in the fun and excitement of scientific discovery.”

Cutting-edge expertise

An Australian by birth, Lyon earned his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, and then worked at the Kennecott Copper Research Labs in Salt Lake City, Utah, and later for SRI, an independent company then known as Stanford Research Institute, conducting infrared sensing. Those experiences led to a 1963 National Academy of Sciences Senior Post-Doctoral Fellowship at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, where Lyon explored the use of infrared sensing to study the surface of the moon. He joined Stanford in 1965. Later, he worked on the NASA Post-Lunar Landing Program, studying rocks brought back from the moon by Apollo astronauts.

Lyon’s research techniques and the knowledge they provided were on the cutting edge of remote data gathering, enough so that his work proved to be a bit of a barrier to his academic career and teaching. “I couldn’t talk about what I knew because it was classified. … It was locked up in a safe; I could only show pencil drawings to students,” Lyon explained in his oral history.

That dynamic began to shift in the early 1970s when Lyon began work on the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, later known as Landsat, the longest continuous-serving record of the Earth’s surface, which is still active today. Starting in 1972, Landsat data became declassified. Lyon could, at last, talk in detail about his work. He subsequently chaired the Geology Group of the National Academy of Sciences Committee at Landsat. Later, he helped explore and expand Landsat’s ability to map sedimentary terrains using data from the orbiting space station, Skylab.

Lifetime contributions

Lyon’s methods are still taught today and used in the mining and remote sensing industries. His scientific writings have appeared in more than 100 books, journals, and conference proceedings. He initially joined Stanford’s Department of Geophysics, but later transitioned to the Department of Geology. As an educator he was an admired and active advisor who, over the decades, prepared many students for successful national and international careers in remote sensing.

“I have taken all my PhD theses home!” Lyon boasted in the oral history. “I have a shelf of about three and a half feet of them. I don’t know how many – I would say there might be 20 to 30 PhDs.”

He retired from Stanford in 1993 but continued to teach and work on remote sensing and geographic information systems. Notably, Lyon began to lead Stanford Alumni Association trips as part of a husband-and-wife team with his wife, Beth (MA ’60, Education), where he gained a certain reputation among alumni for his thorough preparation and engaging lectures on a range of topics far beyond geography on journeys around the world. “The two of us make quite a team,” he said.

In 2001, for his lifetime of contributions to remote sensing and to teaching, the United States Department of the Interior and NASA presented Lyon with the William T. Pecora Award, its highest recognition.

Ronald J.P. Lyon was born January 15, 1928, in Northam, near Perth, Western Australia. He earned his Bachelor of Science and his BSC (the equivalent of MSc) in geology at the University of Western Australia in 1948 and 1949, respectively. He then secured a Fulbright Scholarship, one of the first two western Australians ever in the program, and moved to the United States to earn his PhD in geology at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1954.

Lyon is survived by his wife, Beth Lyon; sons John and Peter (MS ’88, Civil Engineering; AB ’87, Human Biology), and daughter, Anne Hoffman; a sister, Barbara Wall-Smith; grandchildren Patrick, Ian, Sarah-Frances, and Ben Lyon, Emma Geers, and Nick, Lizzie, and Molly Hoffman; and a great-grandson, Connor Lyon. He was predeceased by his son David.

A memorial is planned for the Ladera Community Church in Portola Valley. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations in the name of Ronald Lyon be made to Mission Hospice, Ladera Community Church, or Second Harvest of Silicon Valley.

Four researchers standing with equipment in the field
Ron Lyon, second from left, conducting research in the field. (Photo courtesy of Beth Lyon)

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