Mark Cane

2013 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Mark A. Cane was awarded the 2013 Maurice Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering, technology, and instrumentation; and for outstanding service to the marine sciences.”


Mark Cane started his career when theories for the ocean circulation were “dreamlike” (in the words of Henry Stommel). He made major contributions to a complete change in those perceptions by producing theoretical results that explain and by developing computer models that simulate realistically the variability of the complex system of tropical currents, undercurrents, and countercurrents. His results served as the basis for the design of several international field programs in the three tropical oceans whose different dimensions and different surface winds provide stringent tests for the results concerning the interactions between the waves and currents that determine how the oceans adjust to changing winds.

Next, Cane turned his attention to El Niño, which at that time was regarded as a local departure from “normal” conditions of the upper equatorial Pacific, induced by “triggers” such as westerly wind bursts. Once again, Cane led efforts that resulted in a radical change in perceptions, so that El Niño now is regarded as one phase of a natural mode of oscillation that depends on ocean-atmosphere interactions. (The complementary phase is La Niña.) The elegant, idealized coupled ocean-atmosphere model that Cane and his student Zebiak developed simulates this quasiperiodic mode, produced the first successful dynamical (as opposed to statistical) prediction of El Niño, and has become a widely used tool with numerous applications that include studies of interannual climate variability in general.

Cane’s research established the strategy and rationale for the vast array of instruments we now maintain in the tropical Pacific Ocean and helped launch operational oceanographic activities (the counterpart of the atmospheric activities that provide the daily weather forecast). Cane’s work is the basis for operational and experimental forecasts of El Niño and of seasonal forecasts of temperature and precipitation that are widely used by the agricultural, energy, transportation, and other sectors.

Recently, Cane turned his attention to paleoclimates, specifically the response to Milankovitch forcing. Initial studies of the recurrent ice ages focused on the waxing and waning of polar glaciers, in part because the observations at the time suggested little associated changes in the equatorial oceans. It is now known that the ice ages are associated with significant sea surface temperature fluctuations in low latitudes. Cane’s proposal that the tropical Pacific is a protagonist in the drama of the ice ages has motivated numerous studies, including exploration of the hypothesis that a “permanent El Niño” during the ­mid-­Pliocene (3.3 Ma) delayed the onset of glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere.

Initially, we viewed the ocean as a world unto itself, one that can be studied in isolation, but today, we see it as an essential component of the “Earth system,” one whose interactions with the other components of this planet determine the climate and Earth’s habitability. Mark Cane has been enormously influential in this significant change in our perceptions of the ocean. The award of the Ewing Medal is fitting recognition of the outstanding contributions of an exceptional scientist.

—S. GEORGE PHILANDER, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J.


I must first pay tribute to Klaus Wyrtki, a hero of mine who passed away earlier this year. At a time when ideas about El Niño pointed all over the place, he told me that Bjerknes’s hypothesis was the way forward. He was right, of course, but Bjerknes stopped short of explaining the oscillatory nature of ENSO, and it took Klaus’s tide gauge data to show that ocean dynamics is the answer. His analysis was masterful, but there would have been nothing much to analyze without his incredible effort to deploy those tide gauges in atolls and islands throughout the tropical Pacific. My magnum opus may fairly be described as translating Bjerknes-Wyrtki into a numerical model.

More than anyone else, I have George Philander to thank for my being here tonight. His account of my accomplishments is exceedingly generous and apparently was persuasive, but the main thing is that he nominated me. Had I not been nominated, some other deserving scientist would be up here now. Most important to say, I am deeply grateful to George for his friendship and support over so many years.

All my best work has been collaborative, with wonderful colleagues, including many terrific students. I cannot name them all, but I must mention Ed Sarachik and Steve Zebiak. My work on equatorial wave theory was done with Ed, and, with the exception of Jule Charney, Ed did as much as anyone to form my scientific outlook. Steve was my first student, and our joint work on simulating and predicting El Niño is the obvious reason I am here. I also must thank my foremost collaborator in life, my wife, Barbara, for her support over a lifetime; I could never have made it this far without her.

At the beginning of my career, equatorial oceanography and ocean-atmosphere interactions were outside the oceanographic mainstream. Fortunately, there was a great group of us in this tropical backwater, and we had the tremendous fun of developing the subject almost from scratch. It has been—and still is—a great ride. There were scarcely any measurements, and making moored measurements on the equator demanded some new technology, largely developed at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory by Dave Halpern’s group. Theory advanced in the Equatorial Theory Panel, organized by Dennis Moore. Those meetings were exciting scientifically and exceedingly collegial. The equatorial wave theory we developed and confronted with data proved to be freakishly effective. Honors go to individuals, but this honor should also be taken as recognition of the extraordinary collective accomplishments of our tropical ocean community.

I never met Doc Ewing, but I have the great good fortune to work at Lamont, which continues to be the “scientific commune” he created (the descriptive phrase is from Ewing’s biographer, Edward Bullard). I suspect that Ewing, whose idea was to collect as much data as possible everywhere and all the time, would be less than thrilled to see his medal go to a noncontributing “user” like me. Be that as it may, I cherish this award all the more for the Ewing connection, and I thank the Office of Naval Research for making it possible.

—MARK A. CANE, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia