Nicklas G. Pisias

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences Oregon State University

2018 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Nicklas G. Pisias was awarded the 2018 Maurice Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 12 December 2018 in Washington, D. C. The medal is for “significant original contributions to the ocean sciences.”


Dr. Nicklas George “Nick” Pisias’s deep and broad understanding of paleoceanography and climate dynamics coupled with novel applications of rigorous mathematical and statistical techniques has been the hallmark of his sustained and transformative contributions to our understanding of the history of global-scale ocean processes and their linkages to climate change. Nick’s most important contributions include his innovative work that laid the foundation for the acceptance and understanding of orbital forcing in explaining the ice age cycles, his extraordinary insights into the role of carbon dioxide in these cycles, and his novel application of phase lags and nonlinear interactions to paleoclimatic time series that significantly improved our understanding of the behavior of the climate system. Over the years, Nick has also given selflessly to the ocean sciences community in innumerable ways, a prime example being his role in providing strong and steady leadership to the Ocean Drilling Program through difficult times.

Early in his career, Nick transformed the new and mostly qualitative field of paleoceanography with seminal papers on the identification of climate periodicities. He explained spectral analysis to a geologic audience, then used it to identify millennial-scale climate oscillations and identify a “flipping or state changing of the climate.” Almost 40 years later, these concepts remain central to understanding natural variability in the context of future climate change. Nick applied these methods to test and further develop the orbital (Milankovitch) climate theory. This work laid the framework for the concept of orbital “tuning” of the geologic timescale, which was a major step forward in developing global stratigraphy and gave birth to the Spectral Mapping Project (SPECMAP) of the 1970s and 1980s. Orbital tuning continues today as the primary stratigraphic method for extending high-resolution chronologies beyond the range of precise radiometric dating.

Given all that Nick has provided to ocean sciences in research and service, he is remarkably modest about his accomplishments. Despite this modesty, the rest of the community has long recognized that Nick is a scientist of the highest caliber and that he brings to all of his research and service an extraordinarily high level of rigor and integrity. His research contributions over the last 40 years represent a sustained level of excellence that has led to many new and profound insights into our understanding of the oceans and climate system, and his central role in developing and leading international programs in ocean sciences has been essential to the sustained health of the discipline. Nick Pisias has clearly achieved the expectations of being selected as a Maurice Ewing Medalist.

—Larry A. Mayer, School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, University of New Hampshire, Durham


I have few simple life rules; one is, If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. My corollary is that if I were the smartest person in the collaboration group, I was in the wrong group. I started practicing this when I was a new graduate student and convinced Ross Heath and Ted Moore to take me on as their student to be funded by the newly funded Climate: Long-Range Investigation, Mapping, and Prediction (CLIMAP) project. Annually, the CLIMAP investigators and students would gather at Lamont Hall at Doc Ewing’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Here I was given the opportunity to start a long collaboration with Jim Hays, John Imbrie, and Nick Shackleton. I was with some of the key founders of the field of quantitative paleoceanography. To keep me focused on the bigger picture of geological oceanography, I managed to share graduate student offices with David Rea and Margaret Leinen. Dave kept me being a geologist by teaching me the structural geology of ocean basins, and Margaret introduced me to some of the details of sediment geochemistry.

Just as I was leaving Rhode Island, I crossed paths with Larry Mayer. We again met on Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) Leg 85 to start a long collaboration in ocean drilling. Going to sea with Larry proved to be an education in not only how to map the seafloor and the overlying sediment section but truly seeing the seafloor and understanding what makes up the paleoceanographic records we rely on for our research. When we ultimately drilled our selected sites, we recovered “gold.”

After arriving at Oregon State University (OSU), I managed to convince the dean that we needed to hire a young Alan Mix. This started our 30 odd years of working on projects ranging from the Strait of Magellan to the fjords of Alaska. Alan’s arrival at OSU was ultimately followed by Peter Clark and Ed Brooks. Our group was completed when we added atmospheric and ocean modelers Steve Hostetler and Andreas Schmittner.

With this group of collaborators how could I not come up with some clever ideas about the geologic history of the ocean. Enough, I guess, to earn this honor as the recipient of the Maurice Ewing Medal. They are not just my collaborators but my friends.

The best thing in all of this is that I had fun doing my work.

Do I have advice for young scientists? Be sure you’re in the right room.

—Nicklas G. Pisias, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis