Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Michael Willis

Michael Willis

My broad research uses a mixture of remote sensing, geodesy and field studies to figure out how the cryosphere—the icy component of the Earth system—is supplying mass to the global ocean and affecting sea level. My polar work has involved field seasons in Greenland and Antarctica, while my remote sensing studies have been focused on the Russian Arctic and, at lower latitudes, the rapidly changing icefields of Patagonia and Southeastern Alaska. I use time-series of high resolution topographic models to track how ice sheets, glaciers, ice and permafrost change through time. I am also interested in measuring how the surface of the Earth changes with time due to these changing ice loads and other solid earth hazards.


Current Research

I am working on several diverse projects, almost all focused on the use of remote sensing. Together with colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I  am examining the contribution of glaciers and mountain ice caps to sea level rise over the last half century. I am also working on a project using deep-learning techniques to extract topography from archived Antarctic aerial photos from the mid 20th Century. These projects will provide calibration and validation targets for sophisticated ice models. I continue to work on the POLENET project to refine ice histories and Earth rheological models for both Greenland and Antarctica.

Beyond my polar work, I am working to re-map the Los Angeles basin at very high resolution to examine geomorphological changes along active fault systems in the region. A second project is examining the mechanism that generated a gigantic 180-m tsunami wave within a branch of Icy Bay in Alaska in late 2015. Thankfully no one was hurt. 

Finally I am member of the ArcticDEM production team, using one of the largest ever awards of computer time on the NSF Bluewaters Pertascale computer facility to map the entire Arctic region at 2m resolution. This freely available data set, which will be rolled out by mid 2017 will revolutionize Earth science in the Arctic region, propelling it from one of the most poorly mapped regions of the planet, to one of the best.


I am a member of the ArcticDEM production team, which is mapping the entire Arctic region at 2m resolution. The dataset will be rolled out in 2017; this DEM of Franz Josef Land is just a preview. Check out the 8-MB version on CIRES Flickr for greater detail. 

digital elevation model Arctic islands

View Publications

  • Larsen, SH, SA Khan, AP Ahlstrom, CS Hvidberg, MJ Willis and SB Andersen (2016), Increased mass loss and asynchronous behavior of marine-terminating outlet glaciers at Upernavik IsstrOm, NW Greenland. J. Geophys. Res.-Earth Surf. Version: 1 121 (2) 241-256, issn: 2169-9003, ids: DH6UU, doi: 10.1002/2015JF003507
  • Melkonian, AK, MJ Willis, ME Pritchard and AJ Stewart (2016), Recent changes in glacier velocities and thinning at Novaya Zemlya. Remote Sens. Environ. Version: 1 174 244-257, issn: 0034-4257, ids: DB8DI, doi: 10.1016/j.rse.2015.11.001
  • Gomez, D, R Smalley, CA Langston, TJ Wilson, M Bevis, IWD Dalziel, EC Kendrick, SA Konfal, MJ Willis, DA Pinon, SR Cimbaro and D Caccamise (2015), Virtual array beamforming of GPS TEC observations of coseismic ionospheric disturbances near the Geomagnetic South Pole triggered by teleseismic megathrusts. J. Geophys. Res-Space Phys. Version: 1 120 (10) 9087-9101, issn: 2169-9380, ids: CY0ZI, doi: 10.1002/2015JA021725
  • Willis, MJ, AK Melkonian and ME Pritchard (2015), Outlet glacier response to the 2012 collapse of the Matusevich Ice Shelf, Severnaya Zemlya, Russian Arctic. J. Geophys. Res.-Earth Surf. Version: 1 120 (10) 2040-2055, issn: 2169-9003, ids: CW3FE, doi: 10.1002/2015JF003544
  • Willis, MJ, BG Herried, MG Bevis and RE Bell (2015), Recharge of a subglacial lake by surface meltwater in northeast Greenland. Nature Version: 1 518 (7538) 223-U165, issn: 0028-0836, ids: CA8SD, doi: 10.1038/nature14116, PubMed ID: 25607355
  • Melkonian, AK, MJ Willis and ME Pritchard (2014), Satellite-derived volume loss rates and glacier speeds for the Juneau Icefield, Alaska. J. Glaciol. Version: 1 60 (222) 743-760, issn: 0022-1430, ids: AR0OV, doi: 10.3189/2014JoG13J181
  • Melkonian, AK, MJ Willis, ME Pritchard, A Rivera, F Bown and SA Bernstein (2013), Satellite-derived volume loss rates and glacier speeds for the Cordillera Darwin Icefield, Chile. Cryosphere Version: 1 7 (3) 823-839, issn: 1994-0416, ids: 174GX, doi: 10.5194/tc-7-823-2013
  • Willis, MJ, AK Melkonian, ME Pritchard and A Rivera (2012), Ice loss from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, South America, between 2000 and 2012. Geophys. Res. Lett. Version: 1 39 , Art. No. L17501, issn: 0094-8276, ids: 003CK, doi: 10.1029/2012GL053136
  • Willis, MJ, AK Melkonian, ME Pritchard and JM Ramage (2012), Ice loss rates at the Northern Patagonian Icefield derived using a decade of satellite remote sensing. Remote Sens. Environ. Version: 1 117 184-198, issn: 0034-4257, ids: 894WX, doi: 10.1016/j.rse.2011.09.017
  • Barnhart, WD, MJ Willis, RB Lohman and AK Melkonian (2011), InSAR and Optical Constraints on Fault Slip during the 2010-2011 New Zealand Earthquake Sequence. Seismol. Res. Lett. Version: 1 82 (6) 815-823, issn: 0895-0695, ids: 841VX, doi: 10.1785/gssrl.82.6.815