The Ph.D. dissertation of Howard A. Coombs in 1935 was the first major geological investigation of Mt. Rainier. While completing his doctoral studies and mapping the geology of the park, he served as a National Park ranger. Coombs "probably made more ascents on the mountain than any of his contemporaries," notes UW geologist Eric Cheney.
Coombs served as chairman of the UW Department of Geological Sciences from 1952 to 1969, overseeing the department's major period of growth. He had received his early training in engineering geology by working with Henry Landes, then State Geologist and UW geology department chairman. They investigated the geology of dam sites on the Columbia River for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As the premier engineering geologist of the Pacific Northwest from the 1950s to the 1980s, "not a hydroelectric dam or nuclear power plant was built without his stamp of approval," reflects Cheney. Coombs served as consultant to the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, to several private and public utilities and to various other state, federal, and private engineering organizations.
In 1950, Coombs went to Japan as geological advisor to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces under the aegis of the Agency for International Development. He worked with the Japanese on siting 16 dams, and was awarded a Special Service Commendation by General Douglas MacArthur for his achievements. Appointed in 1976 as the geologist member of the U.S. Department of Interior Blue Ribbon Panel, Coombs helped to determine the causes of the failure of Teton Dam in Idaho.