Around the Pier: Born Two Weeks Apart, Two Icons Celebrate a Centennial


On Aug. 9, 1916, after an address from University of California President Benjamin Wheeler, Scripps researchers, benefactors, and various dignitaries set up long picnic tables on the brand-new Scripps Pier, had lunch, then ran three-legged races – professors and children alike ­– to celebrate the dedication of the new wood and concrete research facility.

Just shy of two weeks later, a lone scientist walked out to the end of the 1,000-foot pier, lowered a bucket onto the ocean surface, and filled it with seawater. It was winched back to the deck and a thermometer inserted. A notation was made in a log: 19.5° C (66.6° F) on the first day, Aug. 22, 1916. The next day, surface salinity readings were taken as well. Science operations had begun.

Original Scripps benefactor Ellen Browning Scripps had given the $36,000 to build the pier; she had chipped in a bit extra when construction problems almost required the pier to be much shorter. It stood until 1988, when it was replaced by the 1,100-foot pier that stands today.

Both the pier and the measurement series have each gone on to achieve their own kinds of renown. Scripps Pier has become an icon of the San Diego landscape in both its incarnations. The Shore Stations program that began with that first temperature measurement has become a record of California climate made more precious by its longevity and consistency, surviving on a shoestring budget for parts of its history.

The program now includes nine stations up and down the California coast that measure seawater temperature and salinity, its current $150,000 annual budget funded by the California State Parks Department of Boating and Waterways. The record has been cited in dozens of research papers over the course of several decades and by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produces a periodic synthesis of global climate change research. Its consistency and long duration give scientific weight to the finding that 2014 and 2015 were among the warmest on record, thanks to a confluence of human-caused global warming, El Niño, and a mysterious “blob” of warm Pacific Ocean surface water that prevailed off the West Coast for more than a year.

Sam McClatchie, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., is among those who have cited the pier record, analyzing its temperature data in relation to populations of Pacific sardine in a 2010 paper. 

“The Scripps pier temperature record is one of those ‘taken for granted’ measurements whose public profile belies its importance,” said McClatchie, NOAA’s lead scientist for the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations program, which has surveyed California ocean conditions since 1949. “These measurements provide a well-calibrated and reliable long time series that are a necessary and inexpensive part of the global ocean observing system. They are a cost-effective and informative time series that can, with adequate support, be easily sustained despite vagaries of funding that may affect more expensive observing efforts.”

Thomas Ebert, a courtesy professor at Oregon State University and an emeritus professor at San Diego State University, cited Shore Stations data in research papers thirty years apart from each other. In both, he correlated pier temperature data with the success rate that animals such as sea urchins had in reaching maturity.

“I’ve found it to be an incredibly valuable resource,” said Ebert, who published papers in 1983 and 2013 that relied on pier data. “You don’t really know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been and that what is so important about these really long-duration datasets.”

Scripps biological oceanographer George Sugihara said the Shore Station record was a vital resource in his study of the algal blooms behind coastal red tides that have historically defied scientists’ attempts to predict them. That dataset and phytoplankton sampling done at the pier by Scripps scientist W.E. Allen in the 1920s and 30s “provided the first evidence for chaos in nature, which sets limits on how far into the future valid predictions of certain processes can be made,” he said.

“Without data from the shore stations, it would be difficult to begin to describe long-term changes, and likely impossible to develop the understanding of processes and mechanisms necessary to predict and respond to future changes,” Sugihara added.

The pier itself, which once allowed people to come and fish off of it for twenty-five cents admission, is closed to the public now. Scientists use it as the launch point for measurements of local ocean circulation, daily dives in the La Jolla Kelp Forest by Birch Aquarium at Scripps aquarists and graduate students working toward advanced certification, periodic counts of phytoplankton populations, marine aerosol surveys, and other operations. The Scripps CO2 Group, which maintains the famous Keeling Curve measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, makes daily measurements there and hydraulic equipment on the pier delivers seawater to Birch Aquarium. In 1972, Scripps installed a faucet at the landward end of the pier to enable people with home aquariums to collect the seawater as well.

“The Scripps Pier, like the rest of our campus, owes its existence to the generosity of Ellen Browning Scripps and I have to think she’d be proud to see how vital it is a century later,” said Scripps Director Margaret Leinen. “The pier is an icon of San Diego but for us scientists, it’s also an icon of research.”

On Oct. 7, Shore Station program managers will host a public symposium at which researchers will take up the question of how – and if – the program should continue into a second century as it is now and how it can be funded in the future. Scientists will also consider whether to maintain the program’s methodology:  Though automated equipment makes up one component of the Shore Station record, the 100-year-old measurement is still made by hand.

In recent decades, the task has fallen to aquarists from Birch Aquarium at Scripps, who lower buckets to collect water just below the surface and at the seafloor.

Scripps Emeritus Professor John McGowan has been involved with the program since 1973, perhaps most importantly as its financier through lean times.  McGowan said that preserving the old school approach is important to preserve so that an apples-to-apples portrait of ocean conditions is maintained.

“We’ve learned how the ocean changes with time, the frequency and magnitude of change. That’s very important for understanding problems of circulation and problems of biological productivity,” he said. “We didn’t want to alias or bias the data in any way by changing the method. Automation would change the nature of the kind of measurement made.”

For Harry Helling, there’s a certain comfort in that. A former associate curator at what was then called the Vaughan Aquarium on campus, Helling was one of the volunteer aquarists who made measurements in the 1980s before leaving San Diego for other career pursuits.

Some 35 years later, Helling returned as the executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps, glad that the pier and the science it hosts remain as constants in the life of Scripps.

“It’s rewarding to have contributed to even a small part of such an important long-term data set,” said Helling, who took on his current position in October 2015. “Returning now after over 35 years as the new Birch Aquarium Executive Director, I enjoy watching the daily sampling program continue as if I never left.”

  • Robert Monroe

Related Image Gallery: Scripps Pier and Shore Stations Centennials

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