Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Michael Willis

Research Interests

My research revolves around questions about the changing cryosphere and time-varying topography with a particular interest in the contribution of glaciers and ice sheets to sea level rise. I am also working on deciphering the processes involved with cascading hazards. These occur when one type of disaster spawns a chain of other hazards. For example, a wildfire on a mountainside may lead to a landslide which may block a river which may pose a flood hazard. My "4D-Lab" combines fieldwork with geodetic and remote sensing tools and high-performance computing resources to examine changing topography at a variety of scales. These changes are driven by a variety of mechanisms such as melting or accelerating glacier ice, thawing and eroding permafrost, and seismic events. These processes have a direct impact on society. 


Current Research

I work on a diverse range of Earth Science projects, most of which apply 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 continue to work on a project 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. My students and I continue to work on the POLENET and ArcticDEM projects to refine recent ice histories and Earth rheological models for both Greenland and Antarctica.

Beyond my polar activities, I am working to map coastal megacities around the planet at very high resolution in order to examine geomorphological changes and inundation risks driven by sea level change. I am part of an interdisciplinary NASA-funded project to examine how wildfires, landslides, and flooding risks interact and are triggered. My drone-equipped laboratory examines how processes and mechanisms of topographic change are linked across different scales, with an increasingly broad focus on the role of hydrology of glaciers, ice sheets, alpine, and urban areas.

digital elevation model Arctic islands

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.