Photo of Henry M. Stommel

Henry M. Stommel

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For his original, penetrating and fundamental contributions to the physics of ocean circulation.

Oceanography was hardly an established science when Henry Melson Stommel entered the field in the 1940s, but his revelations on the physics of ocean currents propelled the field into the modern era. A “conscientious objector” to WWII, Stommel took up oceanography after completing his required years of civil service teaching analytic geometry and celestial navigation to the Navy. It was then that he joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, preferring to study on the open sea rather than in the stuffy, cramped laboratory.

Stommel’s most famous contributions are his theories on oceanic currents — how the shape and rotation of the Earth impact the direction and force of currents, and how temperature and salinity impact water density and deep ocean flows. Even though bureaucracy and paperwork would eventually lead him to swear off large-scale experiments, his international data initiatives like GEOSECS and MODE helped elevate oceanography from individual regional studies to one global collaboration.

By Lauren Clason