URI celebrates retirement of distinguished oceanography professor with ‘Rossby Symposium’

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Rossby called ‘most innovative ocean engineer of 20th century’

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – November 14, 2011 – The Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island celebrated the recent retirement of one of its longest serving and most distinguished professors last week with a day-long symposium in his honor.

Former students, postdoctoral researchers, colleagues and mentors of H. Thomas Rossby, who one called “the most innovative ocean engineer of the 20th century,” celebrated his long career with what they termed a “Rossby Symposium,” during which select participants gave presentations about research they were conducting that was inspired by the URI scientist. Speakers traveled from five countries to participate.

A native of Boston who now lives in Saunderstown, Rossby spent his career studying ocean circulation, especially the Gulf Stream, and how it affects weather and climate around the world. As several speakers noted, he not only conducted research on ocean circulation, he also invented numerous devices and techniques for doing this research.

“Tom has contributed a remarkable variety of instruments for measuring different properties of the ocean by taking advantage of the physics of underwater acoustics,” said George Veronis, a retired professor at Yale University who served as Rossby’s mentor early in his career. “He has shared his instruments and findings generously with his colleagues and students and helped scientists in other countries develop similar instruments and programs for their own use. His interest in understanding the phenomenology in the ocean knows no limits.”

Rossby’s scientific contributions include the development and deployment of neutrally buoyant floats that take advantage of the distribution of sound velocity in the ocean, instruments that enable scientists to monitor fish movements by tracking tagged fish, and determining phenomena occurring at the sea surface via acoustic instruments below the surface. Later in his career he devoted his efforts to a worldwide program that uses instruments mounted on commercial ships to make oceanographic measurements as the ships cross the ocean repeatedly between two ports.

“Tom is respected throughout the oceanographic community for his highly innovative observational approaches and the important insights on ocean circulation that he and his colleagues derive from them,” said David Farmer, the recently retired dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography. “His creativity is matched by a spirit of generosity and modesty that leaves its mark on all who interact with him. The University has been fortunate to have such an outstanding scientist in its ranks, and we wish him continued intellectual rewards and scientific productivity in the years to come.”

Rossby has earned many of the highest honors bestowed upon scientists in his discipline, including the Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union, the Munk Award from The Oceanographic Society and the Suomi Award from the American Meteorological Society. He is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union and a member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. He earned his engineering degree in applied physics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and a doctorate in oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

According to URI Oceanography Professor D. Randolph Watts, who organized the symposium, Rossby is “a very positive, supportive gentleman who is liked and respected by all and who loves to go to sea to conduct his research. Tom has a firm belief that you have to actually measure the ocean to know what is happening in the ocean.” Rossby has traveled aboard the URI research vessel Endeavor about 40 times, more than any other scientist.

Rossby retired from the Graduate School of Oceanography last June, but he continues to maintain an active research program.

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photos by Michael Salerno Photography