Peter George Brewer

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Insitute

2016 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Peter George Brewer was awarded the 2016 Maurice Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 14 December 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “significant original contributions to the ocean sciences.”


Peter Brewer has been one of the world’s leaders for studying the ocean carbon cycle, global ocean change, and the fate of fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2). He has been a role model for scientific vision, leadership, courage, and integrity. I have known Peter for almost 48 years. We worked together on several projects, and I can confirm that Peter is remarkably inclusive in mentoring of other scientists due to his extraordinary talent for asking key questions.

His primary research interests are in the ocean geochemistry of the greenhouse gases, and he has repeatedly made fundamental discoveries on topics before others even recognized them as important areas to study. Peter’s greatest research accomplishments have been regarding the uptake and distributions of CO2 in the ocean. During the Transient Tracers in the Ocean (TTO) and Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) era, he led the acquisition of ocean ­­­basin-­scale sections of alkalinity and dissolved inorganic carbon. In the 1970s he used such data from the South Atlantic to first determine the distributions of anthropogenic CO2 in the ocean. Along the way he identified that nitrate concentrations were needed for the accurate interpretation of alkalinity distributions and ­­­alkalinity-­­­calcium relationships. He subsequently was one of the first to identify the extent and implications of this anthropogenic CO2 for ocean acidification, “the other CO2 problem.”

As director and CEO, he led the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) during a period of intensive growth. Brewer then moved on to reinvent himself as a research scientist and developed new directions of study that combined the unique scientific and engineering capabilities available at MBARI. He developed concepts and tools for studying the evolution of the oceanic fossil fuel signal of CO2, the geochemistry of methane hydrates, and evaluation of strategies for sequestration of fossil fuel CO2. Brewer’s approach is typified by a quote from his 1999 Revelle Lecture: “If all we do as scientists is measure, model and warn, then our value to society will be limited. Can we also provide solutions as well as define the problems?”

In addition to his outstanding scientific accomplishments, Peter has led development of interdisciplinary research programs to attack these problems on a global scale. JGOFS is Brewer’s greatest legacy. As the first chair of the U.S. JGOFS program, he led the community studying the carbon cycle in the global ocean and its link to climate.

Peter Brewer’s scientific accomplishments and leadership in the field of ocean sciences have been extraordinary, and we honor that by bestowing on him the Maurice Ewing Medal.

—James W. Murray, University of Washington, Seattle


I thank Jim Murray for his kind citation. We have been friends and colleagues for almost 50 years, and even as a student, Jim possessed the scientific gifts that pulled me in. John Riley at Liverpool, and Derek Spencer at Woods Hole, had enormous influence on me, as also did David Packard some 25 years later. I thank too Charlie Paull, Marcia McNutt, and Rita Colwell for their splendid examples of common sense in great science, and the MBARI team for their amazing skills and sustained friendship.

In retrospect, a key turning point was the 1968 request that I teach the marine chemistry course on the opening day of the now legendary ­­MIT-­WHOI Joint Program. That experience forced me to look at the fundamentals behind what then was only a happenstance collection of modest chemical observations in the ocean. It also put me in contact with a series of marvelous students. That lesson has stayed with me throughout my career, and I have been fortunate in being able to apply very basic and fundamental chemical rules to open up important problems. The earliest examples were in the accurate representation of the oceanic CO2 system, and today we are applying similar rigor to the insidious problem of declining ocean oxygen levels.

Jim mentions leadership in building the JGOFS program in the ­­mid-­1980s that successfully laid the basis for modern biogeochemical knowledge of the ocean. Today the precarious pH balance of the ocean is changing rapidly with threats to coral reefs in the tropics and calcareous organisms at the poles. And ocean warming is driving reduced ventilation and increased microbial oxygen consumption rates with huge consequences for marine life. A young scientist listening today must barely comprehend how rapid these changes are and that we still are only seeing glimmerings of Earth’s future.

It has been a privilege to take part in these discoveries, and deeply concerning too as we see with increasing clarity the power of the chemical physics we are unleashing, biting down on our Earth.

I have been attending AGU meetings now since 1968, and the Union offers a welcoming home for scientists from around the world. I thank you all for the marvelous questions you ask about our Earth and its place in space. And most of all I thank my wife, Hilary, who is a far better judge of the character of scientists than am I.

—Peter G. Brewer, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, Calif.