Tanya Atwater was born in Los Angeles, California. She reflects that she's had a life-long passion and curiosity to understand how the natural world works and how it all works together. She was the second of three daughters and her mother pushed her to ignore societal gender boundaries and pursue her dreams of science. She briefly took spent some time on the east coast to work on her undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She didn't set out to be a geologist, and she studied physics and chemistry first. She didn't settle on geology as her major and career path until she took a summer course her junior year and discovered not only a passion, but a career that was emerging from that passion. Realizing the east coast is not the most tectonically active, nor is MIT renowned for it's geology, she transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. She eventually graduated by cramming in lots of geology courses as well as math and physics. She later reflected that this gave her a unique and diverse set of skills that likely lead to her discoveries and work later in her career. She spent a year working in Chile at the Institute of Geophysics and Seismology. She eventually come back to California to begin graduate school with impeccable timing. Just a month before starting, the spark of plate tectonics had been set due to recent revelations of sea-floor spreading. She earned her Ph.D from Scripps in 1972. She temporarily went back to MIT to become a professor, but ultimately came back to Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She retired as a professor emeritus in 2007. She is still active in the science community and occasionally does speaking engagements.
Tanya Atwater was what we could consider to be both a marine geologist and a physical geologist. She has spent a great deal of time on ocean dives and played a role in mapping underwater regions and helping to develop sea-floor spreading. She studied mainly fracture zones and the magnetic anomalies of sea-floor spreading zones. This helped others who were figuring out the rate and direction of spreading, which in turn would help a out a piece in place of the plate tectonic puzzle. Specifically she was able to sort out the sequence of events in certain fault locations. It would appear at first glance, for example, that certain faults are in wild crazy zig-zag patterns. Dr. Atwater was able to apply a step process to these faults to explain different stages of spreading and rotation that caused the fault to arrive at its current pattern. She then noted these same steps could be applied to different regions, especially in the San Andreas area implying that the rotations and spreading had been wide spread in a plate action, not just a local fault action.
Visualization is key to plate tectonics. The plates are not static objects and the very nature of studying them requires visualization of very large globally sized objects moving at a slow pace over a large number of years. This requires not only visual skills, but also spatial recognition. Dr. Atwater spent most of her later years working on a vast library  to animate and illustrate the movement of plates. She spends much time currently consulting with teachers and educators to improve and develop animations for the Earth Sciences. She founded the Center for Educational Multimedia Visualizations at UC Santa Barbara.
- Leopold von Buch Plakette, German Geosciences Society (2009)
- Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars from National Science Foundation (2002)
- Elected to National Academy of Science (1997)
- Gold Medal, Society of Women Geographers (1985)
- Encouragement Award for Association of Women in the Geosciences (1984)
- Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Associates for the Advancement of Science (1980) for the top research paper in the journal Science
- Scientist of the Year in the 1980 World Book Encyclopedia
- "Atwater, Tanya Maria." American Men & Women of Science: A Biographical Directory of Today's Leaders in Physical, Biological, and Related Sciences. Ed. Andrea Kovacs Henderson. 28th ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2010. 261. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- "Earth Science - UC Santa Barbara. " Faculty Accolades. University of California Santa Barbara, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- Dreifus, Claudia. "She Put the San Andreas Fault in Its Place ." The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Oct. 1999. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- Atwater, Tanya. "Tanya Atwater Homepage ." Tanya Atwater Homepage. University of California Santa Barbara, 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- Gates, Alexander E. "Atwater, Tanya." A to Z of Earth Scientists. New York: Facts on File, 2003. N. pag. Google Books. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- Menard, H. W., and Tanya Atwater. "Changes in Direction of Sea Floor Spreading." Nature 219.5153 (1968): 463-67. Nature.com Penn State WebAccess. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
- Menard, H. W., and Tanya Atwater. "Origin of Fracture Zone Topography."Nature 222.5198 (1969): 1037-040. Nature.com Penn State Web Access. Web. 14 Sept. 15.
- Atwater, Tanya, and Ken MacDonald. "WebAccess." Nature. Nature 270, 715 - 719, 22 Dec. 1977. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.