Tributes to Peter Niiler from the Oceanographic Community
I met Peter in 1989, too late to be his student, but since then I was
continuously learning from him. Peter became my closest senior friend and one
of three people who really shaped me as a scientist. With Peter’s great taste
to all aspects of life and his strong, non-trivial opinion on all possible
questions, talking with him was a constant challenge and endlessly amazing. His
life-long struggle for the drifter program, often against equally mature and
influential colleagues, turning them from opponents into allies, required all
the sides of his character: theoretical excellence, engineering skill, wisdom
of a manager, international attitude, and genius of a storyteller. Peter was
generously sparkling his brilliant ideas all around him, and I know that for
many years, new scientific papers will continue to appear under his
co-authorship. Peter left bright spots in lives of many people next to him or
across the ocean, and he will be remembered by everybody who had this luck.
Nikolai Maximenko, University of Hawaii, Manoa
On behalf of my fellow scientists in the WHOI Physical Oceanography Department, I extend my deep sadness and condolences to our friends and and colleagues at SIO on the untimely passing of Peter Niiler. Peter touched many of us through the years with his papers and the ideas expressed therein, and, for some of us so fortunate, direct scientific interaction. He will be missed. —John M. Toole, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
made huge contributions to the observation and understanding of the upper ocean
circulation. This is a great loss for the oceanographic community.
Church, Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO),
He has been a very close
friend and a mentor. In additional to physical oceanography, Peter made very
significant contributions to ocean-atmosphere interaction and remote sensing.
He has been a distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and my co-investigators in scattereometer, altimeter, and earth
observation satellites missions in the past three decades.
Timothy Lu, Jet Propulson Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Peter was a valued
colleague over several decades. I always enjoyed the discussions that we had at
numerous meetings over the years with his typical openness, his critical but
positive views and his sound ideas. I was really glad that we were able to
convince him at the end of the WOCE observations to be an author of our book
“Ocean Circulation and Climate” published about ten years ago. Peter had been a
key scientist in designing and setting up the network of drifters for the
surface circulation program of the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, and we
had collaborated in various ways during WOCE.
—Gerold Siedler, Leibniz-Institute
for Marine Sciences, IFM-GEOMAR Ocean Circulation and Climate, Kiel University,
The passing of Peter
Niiler is a sad event. The oceanic world was more interesting place with him
present as a leading hands-on spokesperson on the measurement of the structure
and dynamics of currents. Peter was a true hero of the measurements of oceanic
currents and an exacting researcher of currents, striated ocean patterns,
ocean-climate linkages, global ocean observations, the use of drifters, and
ocean dynamics. His presence as a force in the ocean community and at AGU
meetings will be missed and his work remembered for a long time to come.
—Björn Kjerfve, World Maritime University, Malmö, Sweden
I believe the community owes him a lot for his great achievements,
in many aspects, including of course much better scientific knowledge in
physical oceanography, but also in bringing communities from different
disciplines to work together and benefit from each other.… We are losing an
exceptional scientist, a friend, an artist, and I will always remember him as
someone who could enjoy the many aspects of life, and could make others working
with him proud of what they have been doing.
—Etienne Charpentier, World Meteorological Organization, Geneva,
Peter Niiler was a good
friend since his days at Nova and remarkable colleague. His combination
of creativity and persistance took us far. He understood the physics of
the upper ocean and realized what it would take to really observe it. At the
same time his flair for living and building things were a source of wonder.
He enjoyed a good life and made oceanography social and colorful for many
University of Washington
I am thankful that I had the opportunity to share the time with
him and talk about some of our more than 30 years of interaction. Peter has been influential in so many
of our careers. I came to know him
in the late 1970s while a graduate student at University of Washington. His enthusiasm and boyish energy for
physical oceanography puzzles was quite endearing and certainly was a factor in
propelling my lifelong passion for the field. I always felt blessed to be able to share a meal or attend
one of his lectures. He, like
Henry Stommel, had a manner and intellect that was so engaging and
friendly. Our discipline has lost
one of its best.
—Eric Lindstrom, NASA
Peter and I go back to his days in Cambridge in the
early '60's and I always liked and admired him for both his personal and
— Joe Pedlosky, Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution, Woods Hole, Mass
Peter's loss is a shock for myself and my colleagues at AOML's component of the Global Drifter Program. Peter was a vigorous champion of the need for a global array of drifters measuring currents and temperatures, and through decades of intense effort he saw this dream fulfilled when he personally deployed drifter #1250 in September 2005. More recently Peter was developing new drifters to better understand ocean/atmosphere interactions during tropical cyclone passage, and was my co-PI on a NOAA-funded project to design, deploy and evaluate the performance of salinity-measuring drifters. Peter was an exceptional scientist and mentor, and his intelligence, passion and wit will be greatly missed by all of us.
- Rick Lumpkin, NOAA/AOML, Miami, Fla.
Everyone who knew Peter saw that he was an unorthodox man, whose unorthodoxy stemmed from his intellectual fearlessness, and who let his mind range widely. His zest in many areas was renowned, as others have pointed out above, and he reveled in his ability to understand and create. Peter was exceedingly generous with his ideas, sharing his deep physical grasp of ocean circulation dynamics with many; I count myself lucky to have been among them. He was an early advocate of oceanography as a key branch of climate studies, and saw before most that our field's future lay in the development of ocean time series. He was a fruitful and capable practitioner of this art. We will miss Peter's contributions to this unfinished work, and most of all the passion and gusto he brought to everything he did.
—Billy Kessler, NOAA/PMEL, Seattle, Wash.
To my view Peter has always been the "Last Viking"... I first met him at Melbourne during the final TOGA meeting, and to celebrate the end of this terrific program that changed for a long time the oceanographic community, the main leaders decide to organize a celebration in the old geol of the Melbourne city and the theme of the party was related to roman people in relation with the toga name (it was easy to participate coming with its own bed cloth); and what a surprise, only one guest among several hundred of invited arrives with a costume of a viking! it was Peter, of course. This image is well printed in my mind and, if I follow a career as a physical oceanographer, it is related for a part to this "souvenir". Peter was also very accessible and open for students who want to meet him and exchange about science. People like him will miss.—Christophe Maes, L'Institut de recherche pour le développement, France
My family and I had the great fortune of knowing Peter. Peter has been a true friend, colleague, mentor and one of the most caring people I’ve had the privilege to spend time with. When I think of Peter, I also think of Nancy, whose wonderful dance company was a special part of Peter’s life. I met Nancy and Peter in the early ‘80s as a student attending Enrico Fermi School of Physics near Lake Como, Italy, where Peter lectured on air-sea interaction. We caught up in California after Peter and Nancy moved to La Jolla, and kept a close relationship throughout the years, sharing many special occasions. Peter encouraged and advised me in the development of infrared radiometric instrumentation for measuring sea surface skin temperature and validating with small floating in situ surface buoys, and I remember spending many hours perched at the end of Scripps Pier testing the instruments. This work later led to aircraft flights of the Sea Surface Temperature Radiometer during TOGA COARE, and the opportunity to continue working with him as an Adjunct Research Associate at Scripps. In the thirty years I knew him, Peter always kept in perspective the most important issues, love of family, caring for those around him and appreciating the little things in life. We will keep his memory close to our hearts.
—Denise Hagan, Northrop Grumman Corp., Redondo Beach, Calif.
I first met Peter at Nova Oceanographic laboratory in the late 1960's. We stayed in contact for over forty years. He was primarily responsible for the founding of my company Technocean Inc. We first worked together at NOVA University on measuring techniques for the gulfstream, under the director Dr. William Richardson. Later in the early '80's he asked me to develop a "low cost drifter" which he inspired, the results were the SVP and SVP-B. I will never forget the pleasurable sides of our relationship, from Florida to Hawaii to California he was not only inspiring but also a good companion and friend.
—Henry J.(Hank) White, Technocean, Inc.
Peter Niiler was a colleague, a mentor, and a true friend. Peter once told me, when choosing the direction of one's life, it is most important to do interesting things and not to worry about success as that will naturally follow. Clearly, Peter followed his own advice which led to his success in so many of the interesting things he did.
I worked closely with Peter for over 20 years as an engineer, helping in a small way, to craft his novel ideas into reality. While other colleagues can speak to Peter's contributions to science, I was most familiar with his joy of building. His joy in these endeavors was obvious as he liked to call our lab, "Santa's Workshop". I wish I could show everyone the numerous hand drawn schematics Peter used to illustrate his ideas. Putting pen to paper to document his creations, I believe, was one of the true joys in his life. I know Peter was involved in many projects, but when we worked together it seemed the matter at hand was the only thing he cared about. His focus was inspiring.
While I knew Peter, he built three beautiful homes and the design of these homes reveal much of who Peter was. Peter was practical. None of his homes included large staircases or large garages. His considered them a waste of space. Peter loved people. Most of the space in his homes was designed to allow he and Nancy to enjoy the company of family and friends. Peter loved the experience of the arts. Each of his homes emphasized not the vanity of artistic display one experiences while driving by, but allowed those inside a peek at what he himself enjoyed about the arts. Two of the homes included a dance studio. There were always many places to sit and enjoy a painting, the garden, a sculpture, or the company of the many dancers, choreographers and guests he and Nancy invited into their home. The time I spent observing and working with Peter in his building efforts and admiring the finished products together will be remembered with great joy.
Peter was a kind, intelligent and generous man, and I will miss him greatly.
-- Andy Sybrandy, Pacific Gyre Inc., Oceanside, Calif.
We were deeply saddened to learn of Peter's unexpected death and extend our sincere condolences and sympathies to Peter's family at this difficult time. Peter's contributions to the initial development of drifter technology were indeed groundbreaking and his accomplishments in the ocean circulation domain will forever be remembered. On behalf of myself personally and all of MetOcean's employees he was regarded with great respect and admiration for his work.
— Tony Chedrawy, MetOcean, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada
Having been friends and colleagues with Peter Niiler for forty years, especially during the early 70s in South Florida, I can attest to his high personal and professional integrity, commitment to science, and joy in the pleasures of life. He was remarkably quick and efficient, making time available for many pursuits. Peter was fun-loving but no “Easy Rider”. Though colorful and always proceeding with flair, he was a clever, dedicated, imaginative, and innovative researcher. In the early years, we had a great time with a few initiatives in “Shelf Dynamics” and associated social functions, operating from such venues as Miami, Annapolis, Woods Hole, and New Orleans.
—Chris Mooers, Portland State University
I first met Peter at the International Liege Colloquium of Ocean Hydrodynamics in 1984 when I was looking for a professor/mentor to undertake graduate studies in physical oceanography in the States. I immediately liked this friendly and strange oceanographer with an original look, not only interested in oceanography but in the many other interesting things of life. This encounter convinced me to go to Scripps to study for a Ph.D. under his mentorship. I arrived at Scripps in 1984 when Peter had just begun to use drifters to measure the ocean and this is how I began to be a "Lagrangian oceanographer" working with Peter and colleagues on drifter-based studies of the California Current System. During my 5 years at Scripps, I had the chance to interact closely with Peter and to enjoy his wit and enthusiasm to find ways to better observe and understand the ocean dynamics. In addition, I enjoyed the numerous social functions that he organized mostly at his house, and for which Peter often cooked himself excellent food always accompanied by good wines. Upon completion of my Ph.D. degree I continued to collaborate with Peter on drifter studies of the Pacific Ocean and Nordic Seas in the 1990s. More recently, Peter and I happened to work closely together as part of a new project off Senegal in the Tropical Atlantic. Meeting with Peter during this project, in Dakar, Paris or San Diego was always inst ructive, rewarding and fun. We will continue this project in Senegal in his memory, trying to teach and train African oceanographers to use drifters to explore the ocean and hence contribute to Peter's Global Drifter Program. In short I always considered Peter as my oceanographic "father" and I owe him all the success and diversity (hoping between Europe and North America) of my oceanographic career. His unexpected passing away has touched me profoundly and I look forward to continue working with colleagues on the Global Drifter Program, Peter's most important legacy. Thanks Peter for all the things you did for me. or I should say: thanks "Grand Sachem", as Alex Warn-Varnas and I used to call you during our joint work on the Nordic Seas in the 1990s.
— Pierre-Marie Poulain, Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (OGS), Trieste, Italy
I am very saddened to hear that Peter Niiler has passed away. To me, he was a hero. I was a postdoc at Oregon State while Peter was a professor there. My funding ran out and Peter put me back on my feet with work on the California Current. He taught me how to make oceanographic measurements without getting seasick, from an airplane. He also helped recommend me for a job at NOAA and the sea surface temperatures from his drifting buoys became a critical element in much of the rest of my career. I will miss his insights and invaluable help.
— Richard (Dick) Reynolds NOAA/CICS
I first met Peter at the Ft. Lauderdale house boat that was the dock and offices for then new Oceanography Laboratory at Nova University. It was an exotic environment, but then I was to come to know an exotic oceanographer. Even though I was a graduate student in chemical oceanography, Peter took and interest in my work and help guide me successfully through the final stages of research and thesis. At the same
time my wife Rosalind and I become good friends with the Niilers and learned that there should be a life outside of a professional career: friends, family, good food, wine and the beauty found in nature and created by man. Peter was indeed a renaissance man: but he was not a dabbler. His all-encompassing interest in the many facets of life and the world, I think gave him the ability to look at his oceanographic interests from many sides and to originate novel and effective approaches. The Surface Velocity Program drifters is the example with which I am most familiar. His insight was to combine the emerging capabilities of the Argos data collection system with the programmable capabilities of low power microprocessors to make an inexpensive autonomous instrument that could report from anywhere in the world's ocean. Layered onto that was the vision of what could be learned from hundreds of these freely drifting at sea. Lagrangian oceanography was definitively launched.
During my early professional career I would run into Peter occasionally at the AGU meetings in San Francisco and we would exchange news. At one such meeting in 1989, Peter asked if I would like to try making a new type of measuring device, a drifter. A few months later I was making the first eight drifters I ever made, in my cellar and garage of course, with the help of my daughter. Drips of the boat paint are still on the driveway. They were deployed in the North Pacific and produced the first spaghetti diagram I every saw. But they worked. And they were the first of many drifters that we would make for the Global Drifter Program.
But through it all, Peter was a good friend and a life adviser who kept reminding me and a lot of others that there is much beauty in life and the
world and that we should seek it out in science, dance, painting, architecture, food, wine, friendship, family. Not a bad legacy.
— Gary Williams, Clearwater Instrumentation, Inc, Watertown, Mass.
He was a true leader in the study of ocean circulation and in the development of the tools to do so. In our community he is probably best known for the pioneering work that led to the development of the SVP drifter that has become accepted as our standard workhorse. He was a key promoter of a strong cooperation between oceanographers and meteorologists. In his uniquely proactive and egalitarian way, he was also instrumental in ensuring that his drifter procurements were evenly distributed amongst those manufacturers that would adhere to the SVP design manual, thus making sure that there was enough business to go round, and that experience with design issues could be shared for the benefit of all. It is a tribute both to his persuasiveness (along with realisation that within the velvet glove lay an iron fist), and to the high regard in which he and his principles were held by both scientists and engineers, that manufacturers were happy to engage in open discussion about commercially sensitive issues. Would that such open exchange of ideas took place in other areas of human endeavour.
In the public arena, he could often appear curmudgeonly and abrasive, but Peter’s heart was truly in the right place and he was unstinting in making himself, his encouragement and his resources available to any individual or organization that wished to participate in his global vision of drifter deployment and data analysis. Those of who were lucky enough to spend time with him away from the limelight will always be amazed by the way in which he somehow combined razor-sharp multi-faceted intellect, drive and ambition with humility, openness and a love of companionship and the good things in life. He was a truly generous individual.
His early opinions about the DBCP were far from favourable, but he was an honest and pragmatic man, and quickly saw that by developing a new platform, the barometer-equipped SVP-B, many different agencies could work together in testing and then deploying a global fleet of standard drifters that would simultaneously address the needs of the oceanographic, meteorological and climate communities. More recently, he has been involved in the design and deployment of drifters in front of hurricanes to improve their prediction. Were it not for his vision, persistence, enthusiasm and generosity, it is doubtful that we would have seen the global distribution of multi-purpose drifters that we currently enjoy, and which is the envy of many an observing system operator. Those who had the opportunity to work for him or with him are proud of it.
Peter can never be replaced. However I am sure that you will join me in encouraging and supporting his young colleagues Luca and Rick to carry on where Peter left off. He will leave a huge hole in many people’s lives, not least to Nancy and the rest of his family, and we can but hope that they can rejoice in his memory and achievements, and move forward as best they can.
— Al Wallace, Environment Canada
I had the great pleasure of working closely with Peter during my post-doctoral years at Scripps. Peter has been a large influence in both my career and life. His unique ability to analyze ocean circulation was paralleled with his intense zest for life, which spilled over into his appreciation of art, architecture, wine, and philosophy. His love of and ability to carry out science, while extreme, was but one component to his life. He was a strong supporter of his friends and I am glad to have been counted in as one. We have lost much by his passing. I leave you with a short poem that I wrote last week during my participation in the Sea Surface Topography Science Team meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, where the importance of Peter's drifter observations have become so critical in guiding out understanding of ocean circulation. He is being missed by many.
The Stars have dimmed tonight.
A wonder has been lost from those below.
Lover of life.
Some hope he believed in God,
and was right,
now languishing above.
Others hope he was Buddist,
and was right,
soon returning for us on Earth.
When living, he savored life’s sweetness,
an exampled guide to follow.
Our friend of math may somehow humor
his once reality now an abstract,
that all will continue to cherish through the years.
Memories as these,
kept close at heart
are oft savored and enjoyed.
Like a fine wine,
our friend and world guide,
will continue to improve us all.
A Choreographer of Life
guiding us even now.
— John R. Moisan, NASA/GSFC Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.
Peter and I shared a bond going back to the mid-1970’s when he and I were scheduled to be the other two crew members on Bill Richardson’s ill-fated R/V Gulf Streamcruise in the Gulf of Maine. At the last minute neither Peter nor I were able to rendezvous with the vessel and hence we did not go on the cruise. As many will remember, the boat was tragically lost with all five crew members in the Gulf of Maine in January 1975. During the next 35 years our paths intersected in multiple ways. Peter brought a remarkable and unique energy to the numerous TOGA, WOCE, DBCP, etc. meetings, workshops and observing programs in which I participated during my years at NOAA. Ten years ago when I started with Argos Peter joked that I had become a “traitor.” In private he acknowledged we continued to be strong allies. The extraordinary success of today’s drifting buoy technology and the resulting science is due more than anything to his skill, vision, leadership and persistence. I echo the comments that many have submitted in his memory. Among the things about Peter that stood out so much for me was his dedication to educating the younger generations and to making oceanography attractive to them. We as a community aren’t always as sensitive as we need to be to the importance of ensuring scientific and technological continuity through mentoring and support of our younger colleagues. Peter was and we are so grateful to him for that. We will remember him well as his spirit lives on through those he has groomed to follow him.
—Bill Woodward, CLS America, Largo, Md.
Peter hired me away as a computer programmer from the aerospace industry in 1986. Little did I realize that my new boss would be untraditional in every sense of the word. Neither before nor since have I had an employer as such a mentor and friend - promoting my strengths and encouraging me to learn as much as possible about my work and the world. When visiting scientists, scholars, and people of notoriety came to work with Peter, he would introduce all of us as important players in his research. He made every person in our group feel as a critical team player. He taught me to make decisions count - to take time to consider direction instead of hurrying through life. He didn't hesitate to extend opportunities for people to grow personally - he encouraged it. Peter loved to laugh, and loved to be surrounded by people with a verve for life. Nancy so completed him. Many of our group were introduced to modern dance as he rallied us to go to her performances, where he took great delight telling us the background work that went into her pieces. He was a gifted orator, able to explain complex ideas and visions with math and physics - or in whatever terms his audience was comfortable with - so that people understood. Peter was full of surprises. One of my first trips to sea, he told me "pick up some lifesavers with your supplies". My delight in an excuse to take along (more) candy was short lived: the lifesavers were used as a melt-away deployment device releasing lines that held the drifters' "arms" in place as we threw them overboard (the pre-holey-sock tri-star design). Perhaps these kinds of ideas are conventional to oceanographers, but the rest of us likely don't view candy as a potential tool! Peter often encouraged people to go just beyond their comfort zone and achieve something that they didn't consider. I think that was his gift to those of us fortunate to work for and with him. He was able through his own enthusiasm toward life to inspire us in a myriad of ways. I am deeply saddened by our loss, and will miss our birthday-calls - Peter was born on "Talk like a Pirate Day", which we loved to joke about. Thank you, Peter, for enriching my life, and teaching me so many things.
—Judy Illeman Gaukel, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
I have very vivid and fond memories of being in Peter's house down at the Shores and being just absolutely struck by how much beauty he had created at his home. He had designed this house and its garden-like enclosure, and it was stunning and original. At that moment, I knew Peter was not your average scientist by any stretch of the imagination. He had very obviously developed an incredibly sophisticated aesthetic sense, and somehow translated this into becoming something of an architect. He also had a deep appreciation for dance and, of course, wine and food -- a man of diverse talents, who knew how to throw a great party! How cool. Peter was a very special person ... I expected him to be with us much longer.
—Christina S. Johnson, Science Writer & Editor, California Sea Grant, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
It is very sad news that Peter suddenly passed away. He was a real leader in GDP and WOCE/TOGA SVP. Japanese drifter community also greatly owed him, by applying his design of buoys and plans of deployment to Japan's national drifter activities. His leadership led Japanese buoy program to that of world standard. I first met Peter in 1988 or 1989, when he made a ‘campaign trip’ to Asian countries including Korea and Japan. Since then fortunately I had many opportunities to talk with him, sometimes in international conferences and some in his office in La Jolla. I totally enjoyed chatting with him during my stay in Scripps Institution of Oceanography as a visiting scientist in 1993-94, not only on the dynamics of ocean surface with which I was inspired very much, but also regarding his way of life.
Drs Haruo ISHII, Hiroyuki YORITAKA, and I, who promoted our operational drifter program in Japan based on close and constructive discussion with Peter, will deeply miss him.
I sincerely thank Peter for all he gave. His words remain in my mind forever.
—Yutaka MICHIDA, Prof. Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, The University of Tokyo
Those wishing to add remembrances of Peter Niiler are invited to email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.