Ocean Sciences Tribute

Christopher N. K. Mooers (1935–2018)

This passionate physical oceanographer, a leader and catalyst in coastal studies, explored many facets of nearshore circulation and advanced the modeling and forecasting of coastal dynamics.

By , Malcolm Bowman, and Curtis Collins

Christopher N. K. Mooers in 1972.
Christopher N. K. Mooers in 1972. Credit: Oregon State University

Christopher N. K. Mooers came early to a life devoted to oceanography—its science, community, and institutional structures. His interests in the sea, its coastal boundaries, and its tributaries were manifest even when as a teenager, he and some companions floated down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans in a self-refurbished lifeboat.

Later, Chris won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., from which he graduated in 1957. He spent the next 6 years on active duty, 4 of them in the Pacific with the Seventh Fleet. In the remaining 2 years, during shore duty at the submarine base in Groton, Conn., he earned a master’s degree in physics at the University of Connecticut. When the Cuban missile crisis struck in late 1962, Chris, who had become fluent in Russian as an undergraduate student, served as a translator with the squadron that blockaded Cuba.

In 1964, having completed his Navy service, Chris entered the Ph.D. program at Oregon State University in Corvallis. A major hydrographic feature along the Oregon coast is seasonal, wind-driven coastal upwelling. With Robert L. Smith as his mentor, Chris quickly became immersed in measurements of ocean currents and hydrography, time series analysis, and the dynamics of the upwelled front. He graduated in 1969 after completing a thesis on “The Interaction of an Internal Tide with the Frontal Zone in a Coastal Upwelling Zone.” Several journal papers derived from his comprehensive (480-page) thesis. He subsequently spent a year as a postdoc at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

Raising the Prominence of Coastal Oceanography

From 1964 to 1980, Chris remained an active participant in coastal upwelling studies. His interests in coastal processes progressed to an interest in numerical models, their application to the nearshore ocean, and the efficacy in simulating and predicting the real ocean. He was responsible for the creation of an operational forecast system in the Gulf of Mexico and Prince William Sound in Alaska, both following oil spill disasters.

Chris’s first academic position (1970) was at the University of Miami, where he studied the dynamics of the Florida Current and its associated fronts with John Allen of Oregon State University and Peter Niiler of Nova University. From the early 1970s, he played a seminal role in promoting a new epoch of continental shelf research, catapulting coastal oceanography into a prominent position of increased funding, research, and respect from the international community of physical oceanographers, particularly those who were focused on so-called blue water oceanography.

In 1973, Chris organized a pivotal workshop on continental shelf dynamics at the Naval Academy. This workshop was quickly followed by a large contingent of U.S. coastal oceanographers attending the 1975 Liege Colloquium on Ocean Hydrodynamics in Belgium about the same topic. Because of Chris’s work and major contributions from other investigators in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe, continental shelf oceanography; shelf wave theory; modeling and observations; and studies of coastal upwelling, fronts, and ocean prediction all took off.

Delaware and Beyond

In 1976, Chris moved to the University of Delaware, where he engaged in studies of the atmospheric forcing of circulation on Georges Bank, southeast of Cape Cod, Mass., and the New York Bight. In 1977, he and Malcolm Bowman organized a workshop on the emerging field of coastal oceanic fronts. Springer-Verlag published the proceedings as Oceanic Fronts in Coastal Processes, then invited the organizers to start up a series of monographs on coastal and estuarine research. During the next 2 decades, Chris, Malcolm, and various coeditors produced 56 volumes, published first by Springer and later by AGU. Chris had an amazing ability to ferret out enterprising investigators who were willing to pull together conferences and workshops that provided the source of much of the monograph material.

In 1979, Chris became chair of the Oceanography Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), focusing on combined observational and modeling studies of the interactions of eddies and squirts with the coastal ocean off Northern California (with Allan Robinson). At NPS he also transitioned the department to a focus on physical oceanography and marine acoustics and arranged for the R/V Point Sur to replace the R/V Acania.

In a major happening in 1986, the Navy created the Institute for Naval Oceanography at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and appointed Chris as its director. Then, in 1989, Chris joined the University of New Hampshire but subsequently was welcomed back to the University of Miami in 1991 and there continued fruitful research for the next 18 years. Upon retiring from Miami, Chris began his final employment as a research professor at Portland State University in Oregon.

At the Forefront

Chris was an organizer and a leader: During the 1990s, he initiated the Coastal Ocean Prediction System (COPS). In 1991–1996, he was the editor of the Journal of Physical Oceanography and later was one of the founders of the Southeast Atlantic Coastal Observing System (SEA-COOS).

In another collaboration with Malcolm Bowman, Chris started the Gordon Research Conference (GRC) in Coastal Ocean Circulation in 1993 and later, together with Dan Lynch, the related GRC in Coastal Ocean Modeling in 1999. Those conferences merged in 2017 into the GRC on Coastal Ocean Dynamics and have become major contributors to the research, reporting, and interactions of the coastal ocean scientific community.

Chris loved professional meetings and workshops or any oceanographic milieu. He was a genial but outspoken participant and a seemingly ubiquitous presence at regional, national, and international conferences. He seemed to know what was going on everywhere, more than anyone else.

Friends, Family, Science, and the Sea

Chris had many friends. His energy and cheerful personality were overflowing. It was unheard of for him to say a bad word about any of his colleagues. The sea was his joy as well as his work. Some of us recall taking sailing vacations with him during which he was often at the wheel. If the boat was heeling in heavy seas and Chris was at the helm, you would see his signature long hair, thoroughly soaked, framing a smiling face.

Chris died on 3 April 2018 in Milwaukie, Ore., at age 82. He had been predeceased by his wife, Elizabeth (Betty), to whom he was married for 52 years. Surviving him are his son Blaine and daughter-in-law Gloria and son Randall and daughter-in-law Vivienne and his adult grandchildren, Victoria and Ian.

As remembered by Randall, his father was a man who “loved the oceans, meteorology, cosmology, sports, the arts, overseas travel, and long walks with his rescue dog Leo. He was a self-described contrarian/nonconformist, and a conservative humanist.”

As remembered within the oceanographic community and beyond, Chris was an amazing scientist of great intellect. He is sorely missed, and his place in the annals of coastal physical oceanography is secure.

—George Mellor (email: [email protected]), Princeton University, N.J.; Malcolm Bowman, Stony Brook University, N.Y.; and Curtis Collins, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

Citation: Mellor, G., M. Bowman, and C. Collins (2018), Christopher N. K. Mooers (1935–2018), Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO107059. Published on 03 October 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.