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Michael J. McPhaden

Michael J. McPhaden
Michael J. McPhaden

The 2010 Fridtjof Nansen Medal is awarded to Michael J. McPhaden for his leadership in developing ocean observing systems for climate research and forecasting and for fundamental contributions to our understanding of the ocean’s role in climate.

Dr. McPhaden has been nominated for “Leadership in developing ocean observing systems for climate research and forecasting and for fundamental contributions to our understanding of the ocean’s role in climate”. Dr. McPhaden has had a distinguished career at PMEL developing ocean observing systems for improved understanding and prediction of climate. Foremost among these observing systems is the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array in the Pacific. McPhaden led a multi-national consortium during the 10-year (1985-94) Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) programme to implement the array of nearly 70 permanent observing sites across the tropical Pacific. The array wrapped around one third the circumference of the globe near the equator and, because of its dimensions and specialized technology, took the full 10 years of TOGA to complete.

Analysis and interpretation of TAO measurements have revolutionized our understanding of ocean-atmosphere interactions in the Pacific that give rise to EI Nino and La Nina events. One measure of the array’s impact is that over 600 articles have been published in the refereed literature using TAO data. The TAO array has also provided the observational underpinnings for the development of EI Nino and La Nina forecast techniques. As stated in Science News (Dec. 7, 2002), “Scientists generally agree that ocean observatories’ shining accomplishment has been the prediction of El Ninos … [enabled by] the network of buoys known as the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean project.”

McPhaden not only directed the implementation of TAO, but also made the data it produced publicly available via the World Wide Web. The Internet revolution began as the array was being completed, and McPhaden realized the potential of linking the field program to automated data distribution and display capabilities of the Web. The TAO web pages also provide the first web-based tutorials on El Nino and La Nina for the public, policy makers, and the scientific community. Open access to TAO data has precipitated a culture shift in oceanography in which sharing of data while still fresh is now considered a standard for large-scale, long-term field programs.

McPhaden has extended the concept of moored buoy array measurements in support of climate studies to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well. He has been deeply involved in establishing the Prediction and Research Moored Array in the Tropical Atlantic (PIRATA) in partnership with agencies in France and Brazil in the late 1990s. Like TAO, this array has been endorsed as a permanent component of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). Since 2004, McPhaden has led a multi-national consortium of institutions in the design and implementation of the Research Moored Array for African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction (RAMA) in the Indian Ocean.

RAMA is nearly 50% complete and when finished (in 2012) will result in a globe-girdling network of moored buoys spanning all three tropical ocean basins. In addition to scientific leadership in establishing ocean observing systems, McPhaden has published over 160 articles in the refereed literature and been cited over 6000 times.