Memorial services set for Peter Niiler, world authority on ocean circulation

Press Release

Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 743 Prospect St. for Pearn Peter Niiler, a distinguished emeritus professor of physical oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD. He died Oct. 15 of heart attack in San Diego.

A La Jolla resident for the past 30 years, he was one of the world’s leading authorities on ocean circulation.

For the past 40 years, Niiler's work has helped shape how scientists study the ocean. His early understanding of the linkage between ocean circulation and the world's climate served as a catalyst for improved global ocean observations. He conceived and designed the Global Drifter Program, which in 2005 became the first fully completed component of the Global Ocean Observing System. At the time of his death, Niiler was deploying drifters in front of tropical storms and typhoons to further the knowledge of the interaction of the ocean with these deadly weather systems.

"Peter had the rare gift of inspiring people around him and to bring out the positive part of their character,” said Luca Centurioni, a Scripps physical oceanographer. “He was enthusiastic, tenacious and was driven by a genuine interest in understanding the dynamics of the ocean. He was an exceptionally skilled engineer and was able to spin-up amazingly fruitful oceanographic experiments. He was uncommonly generous with his ingenious insights and ideas and guided his colleagues to investigate new creative ways of solving scientific problems.”

Theresa Paluszkiewicz, of the U.S. Office of Naval Research noted that "Peter could always be counted on to bring vision, creativity, and scientific depth to studies of the coupling of the atmosphere and ocean and to provide innovation in measurements of the upper ocean.

"He brought tremendous enthusiasm and joy to tackling new problems, and to designing ever-more daring experiments. His generous spirit in communicating his understanding of ocean dynamics touched many across the globe."

Niiler spent decades designing ocean instruments for directly measuring ocean circulation and using them in increasingly comprehensive observations to learn the ocean's dynamics. Motivated by a growing interest in the role that ocean-atmosphere interactions have in shaping climate, Niiler became a world expert in the upper "mixed layer" of the ocean that interacts most directly with the atmosphere.

When Niiler arrived at Scripps in 1982, surface temperature readings and circulation patterns were a mystery in large parts of the world, especiallyin the Southern Ocean. Niiler's vision was that such information gaps could

only be filled with a completely new global ocean observing system.

"A large part of the world simply could not be sampled," he said in a 2005 interview, "because most of the world's ships don't go there. We needed a new way."

To do this, Niiler and his colleagues met in Boulder, Colo., in 1982 to design new ocean instruments. This led to the creation of the Global Drifter Program, which maintains 1,250 drifting buoys throughout the world’s oceans.

To date, more than 350 scientific papers have relied on data from these drifters. Atmospheric pressure data from the drifters are an important element for accurate weather forecasts and are used by meteorological agencies worldwide.

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