Stommel, Henry (Global Warming)


Henry Stommel is an American oceanographer and meteorologist whose theories on general circulation patterns in the Atlantic Ocean made him the creator of the modern field of dynamical oceanography. Stommel carried out a series of research studies and first suggested that the Earth’s rotation is responsible for the Gulf Stream along the coast of North America. He theorized that its northward thrust must be balanced by a stream of cold water moving in the opposite direction beneath it. Carl Wunsch has described Stommel as "a transitional figure, being probably the last of the creative physical oceanographers with no advanced degree, uncomfortable with the way the science had changed, and deeply nostalgic for his early scientific days." Stommel has been praised for being both a creative theorist and an acute observer who was willing to spend months at sea.

Stommel was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 27, 1920, into a family of extremely mixed background. His ancestors came from such different places as the Rhine Valley, Poland, Ireland, the Netherlands, England, and France, and they also had a trace of Micmac Indian. Henry’s father, Walter, was a chemist born in northern Germany and trained in Darmstadt and Paris. During World War I, Walter Stommel emigrated to Wilmington, where he was employed by Dupont Chemical. While in the United States, he married Marian Melson. Their son Henry was born shortly after the marriage. Although the reason is not completely clear, perhaps because of anti-German sentiment following World War I, the family then moved to Sweden. Henry’s mother, however, soon left Sweden with Henry and returned to Wilmington. Because of his mother’s decision not to see her husband again, Henry and his sister Anne grew up in a single-parent family. When Henry was 5 years old, his mother moved with the two children to Brooklyn, New York, to live with her parents and other relatives. Marian supported the entire household thanks to her job as a fund-raiser and public relations officer at a hospital. Henry and his grandfather, Levin Franklin Melson, developed a meaningful relationship in a household dominated by women.

Henry Stommel theorized the circulation patterns of oceans and cold water moving in the opposite direction beneath it.

Henry Stommel theorized the circulation patterns of oceans and cold water moving in the opposite direction beneath it.

Stommel attended New York City’s public schools. He spent one year at Townsend Harris High School but finished high school at Freeport, Long Island, because his family had moved there. Thanks to his receiving a full scholarship, he was able to enroll at Yale University, from where he graduated in 1942. He remained at Yale for two years following graduation, teaching analytic geometry and celestial navigation in the Navy’s V-12 program. He also spent six months at the Yale Divinity School, but his lifelong ambivalence toward religion made the ministry an unsuitable vocation for him. In 1944, renowned astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer suggested that Stommel apply for work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts—an organization that was fast becoming a decisive part of the U.S. war effort. Stom-mel was recruited to work in acoustics and antisubmarine warfare but disliked his assignment and tried to be employed in other areas.

In 1948, Stommel wrote "The Westward Intensification of Wind-Driven Ocean Currents," a paper that is unanimously regarded as constituting the starting point of dynamical oceanography. In it, he explained the Gulf Stream deductively by fluid dynamics. In particular, he discovered the mechanism (the latitudinal change of the Coriolis force on the rotating Earth) that produced the westward intensification of oceanic currents. Stommel proposed a global circulation model similar to a conveyor belt: surface water sinks in the far north to supply the deep, south-flowing current, and water rises in the Antarctic region to contribute a northward flow along the eastern coasts of North and South America. His important book The Gulf Stream was probably the first true dynamical discussion of the ocean circulation. He put the Gulf Stream in the wider context of the general circulation and paved the way for the development of the so-called thermocline theories. Stommel also concluded that changes in density caused by cooling and evaporation at the sea surface can be responsible for deep flows in the ocean. He was thus responsible for establishing the basic factors that helped to establish theories about global circulation. His thermocline theories stressed the role of oceans and sea currents in the definition of global climate and thus anticipated debates on global warming.

In December 1950, Stommel married Elizabeth Brown. The couple had three children. Although Stom-mel liked working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, he did not get on well with his director Paul Fye. Therefore, he accepted an invitation to become a professor at Harvard University in 1959, lured by the prestige of the institution. He spent four unhappy years there, where his democratic ideals clashed with a rigid sense of hierarchies. After Harvard, Stommel went to work at the Department of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he worked with the most famous meteorologists of the day, such as Jule Charney, Norman Phillips, Edward Lorenz, and Victor Starr. Stommel worked enthusiastically with these scientists to improve theories of general circulation. He also worked on other important topics such as the classification of estuaries and the effect of volcanoes on climate.

Stommel worked at MIT for 16 years as a professor of physical oceanography. He returned to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution when Fye retired and continued to work there until his death on January 17, 1992. Stommel established several stations for the study of ocean currents, including the PANULIRUS station (begun in 1954) in Bermuda. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1962 and received the National Medal of Science in 1989.

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