Glenn Ierley: 1952-2024

Teacher and mentor contributed to geophysics, oceanography and more

Glenn Ierley, a renowned emeritus professor whose research spanned geophysics and physical oceanography, died May 16 after battling cancer for more than two years. He was 71.

Ierley was born Nov. 27, 1952 in Morristown, N.J. His excellence in mathematics helped earn him a scholarship to California Institute of Technology. He received his PhD in mathematics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982, and in 1992, joined Scripps Oceanography. He became an emeritus professor in 2011.

Colleagues remember Ierley’s expertise in the area of mathematics known as asymptotic analysis that is used in statistics and other branches of science.  He applied his knowledge to studies that examined everything from whale vocalizations to ocean circulation. 

“Glenn formed wide-ranging collaborations both in and outside of Scripps,” said Scripps physical oceanographer Bill Young. “With a great diversity of co-authors, his publications span geodynamo theory, ocean circulation, non-Newtonian fluids, dynamical systems and  marine bio-acoustics. During a long final illness, he continued to work on data analysis and the extraction of signals from noise.”

Ierley was based at the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP), where his colleague, geophysicist Cathy Constable remembered his diverse interests and qualities as a teacher.

“His research interests ostensibly focused on the mathematics of upper bound theory, turbulence and stability, and he had many interactions with theoretical physical oceanographers at Scripps, but he also applied his expertise to a range of geophysical studies including of Earth’s magnetic field,” said Constable. “Some of our best memories of Glenn are as a teacher able to deliver useful understanding of mathematics to mere mortals from a quirky humorous perspective.”

Constable and Scripps physical oceanographer Teri Chereskin noted that when Ierley retired from Scripps in 2011, he gave a final lecture but not on any of his research topics. 

Instead Ierley discussed photography which he thought would be more relatable to a general audience than his scientific research. The talk was titled “Closing thoughts on the empire that was Russia.” He had been fascinated by a series of stunning color separation negatives made by the Russian photographer Serge Prokudin-Gorskii recording daily life in early 20th century Russia.  Ierley had painstakingly created color-corrected versions of several Prokudin-Gorskii images. Some of those images remain on the walls of the IGPP building to this day.

Ierley is survived by his siblings Doug Ierley of Rockville, Md., Alice Ierley of Louisville, Colo. and Edna Ierley-Byrne of Brookside, N.J. as well as two nephews, three nieces, and his cats Chaucer and Scratchy. A celebration of life will be held this summer in his hometown of Houghton, Mich.

In lieu of flowers, the Ierley family requests that donations be made to either Little Brothers of the Elderly in Hancock, Mich., or the American Cancer Society.

Members of the research and Scripps Oceanography communities are invited to add tributes to Glenn Ierley. Please submit them to




“His interests were broad.  His talents were prodigious and he was an extremely generous man.  If you needed his help he would give it.”  – Rick Salmon, physical oceanographer, Scripps Oceanography


“We met on the Scripps shuttle while I was an undergrad double majoring in mathematics and biology. I was working in the fish collection at Scripps at the time, and was heading down for a few hours of work. He noticed me reading Walter Rudin's Principles of Mathematical Analysis, a classic reference he knew well, and started a conversation by asking me about what I was learning and what I was doing at Scripps. He kindly offered to meet with me to discuss grad school and career options, seemingly excited to be a sounding board to an aspiring applied mathematician.

We had many conversations in his office at IGPP, where he shared helpful perspectives with a dash of humor, and he eventually invited me to his home for semi-regular dinners where we would talk about science and life, books we were reading and wines to try on my next trip to France (Bordeaux wines, specifically Graves, were a favorite). We grew to be good friends, enjoying casual chats on and off campus.

It became obvious over the years that Glenn had my best interest in mind and looked for opportunities to make a difference. When I was admitted into the WHOI research experience for undergraduates program, Glenn excitedly talked to me about WHOI and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (GFD) program, which would be ongoing during my summer stay on the Cape. Glenn had been an avid participant in the GFD group, and suggested I sit in on the talks and get to know the community. Before I left, he tasked me with sharing a manuscript with some of the GFD participants, justifying it by saying that he had reached out to them but that they had not responded to requests for comments. With several copies of the manuscript in hand, I flew over to the Cape, attended the summer symposium, and shared his manuscript. It was only later that I realized that sharing the manuscript was his way to encourage and enable discussions between me and his colleagues, who knew him well and would make sure to take time to chat with a student Glenn knew.”   – Mattias Cape, marine biogeochemical scientist, Environmental Defense Fund


"I consider it a huge privilege to have had Glenn as my teacher and mentor, both for a year in the classroom and for many years thereafter. Glenn taught one of the toughest series of classes that I’ve ever taken, but did it in a way that challenged me and my classmates to rethink our limits, knowing that he would be there to help us break through them. Glenn had a unique and unforgettable teaching style that left us in a mix of awe, confusion, laughter, and eventually often—though admittedly not always—comprehension (sorry, Glenn, we tried!). While I hope Glenn might have recognized the impact of his teaching and mentoring style on us as individual learners, what he may not have realized was that by challenging his students so greatly, he also encouraged us to build stronger bonds to support each other. I formed not just many of my best memories of applied mathematics and Scripps coursework in Glenn’s classroom (and the quaint workspace outside it where we toiled through many of his carefully thought out assignments), but lifelong friendships as well. Finally, I can’t help but note that the anecdote shared here about Glenn’s final lecture at Scripps resulted in these beautiful images printed not just for the hallways of the IGPP Munk Building, but also for the Library of Congress! I hope that I can challenge and inspire my own students even a small fraction of the extent to which Glenn challenged and inspired us." ~ Phil Bresnahan, University of North Carolina Wilmington





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