Obituary Notice: Wolf Berger, Pioneer of Paleoceanography


Wolfgang “Wolf” Berger, an oceanographer, author, longtime professor and former interim director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, died August 6 at the age of 79.

Berger was one of the pioneers in paleoceanography and seamlessly integrated all branches of oceanographic science: physical, chemical, biological and geological. His research included investigations of plankton ecology, the carbon cycle, the history of climate, and the productivity of the oceans. Considered an ambassador for science, Berger was a renowned expert on how the ocean, atmosphere, and climate develop and change over time. (View photo gallery; listen to oral history interview conducted in 2012.)

“Wolf Berger was one of the architects of the field of paleoceanography for which he received the Bigelow Medal, the Ewing Medal and the Balzan Prize among many other awards,” said Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice Chancellor for Marine Sciences at UC San Diego. “We were fortunate to have him spend most of his career with us as a student, faculty member, division director and interim director. His text books and popular oceanography books also excited students and the public around the world."

A native of Erlangen, Germany, Berger came to the United States as an exchange student at the University of Colorado. He received an MS in geology from that university in 1963, and a PhD in oceanography at Scripps Oceanography in 1968. That year, he was appointed an assistant research oceanographer at Scripps and an assistant professor of oceanography at San Diego State University. He held both positions until 1970 when he returned to Germany to serve as an assistant research scientist in geology at the Universitaet Kiel.

In 1971, Berger rejoined Scripps, where he remained for the rest of his career, eventually serving as chair of the Geosciences Research Division from 1994 to 1996. He also served as interim director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1996, a position he held until Charles Kennel was appointed director in December 1997.

"Wolf was a polymath who substantially started the field of paleoceanography,” said Richard Norris, professor of paleobiology at Scripps, “particularly the study of productivity in the oceans, the carbonate compensation depth, and the broader links of paleoclimatic evolution to the biological evolution in the oceans."

Following the establishment of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Bremen in Germany in 1986, Berger worked for many years as a guest professor. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Bremen in 2011.

Berger is the author of nearly 250 scientific publications and is known for his work on the selective preservation of calcareous fossils on the deep-sea floor, which had wide-ranging implications and ramifications for the understanding of the carbon cycle in the sea, and its link into climate variations. He also led the study of the history of productivity in the oceans and its role in the evolution of marine life, including that of the great whales. In recent years, he explored the mechanisms of sea-level change and modulation of climate by variations in Earth’s orbital dynamics.

"Wolf was a most generous and kind person who excelled in everything he did,” said Miriam Kastner, professor of geochemistry at Scripps Oceanography. “In addition to his deep involvement with science, Wolf also had other interests – he was a first class chess player, and wrote children books and guide books on the geology and ecosystems of La Jolla and the North County."

In addition to his studies, Berger is the author of the widely used textbook The Sea Floor (4th edition revised, 2017) and the popular book, Walk Along the Ocean, a guide to the shoreline of San Diego’s North County, as well as two other books with local themes--Coast to Crest and Beyond set in the San Dieguito River Park, and San Elijo Lagoon: a Wetland in Southern California. He also wrote Feed Me: the Story of Penny the Penguin Chick for children. He also served on the editorial boards of Geology, the AGU Monograph Series, Marine Geology, Marine Micropaleontology, the Journal of Foraminiferal Research, AGU Paleoceanography, and the Journal of Paleoclimatology and on the advisory board of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Berger’s accolades were numerous and global. His honors included receiving the Milutin Milankovich Medal from the European Geosciences Union (2012), the Francis P. Shepard Medal from the Society for Sedimentary Geology (2001), the Steinmann Medal of the German Geological Association (1998), the international Balzan Prize for his pioneering work in paleoceanography using micropaleontological methods for deciphering the geological history of the oceans and climatic implications (1993), the Maurice Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. Navy for contributions in marine geophysics (1988), the Humboldt Award from the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation for contributions to the earth sciences (1986), the Huntsman Medal of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography for contributions to the marine sciences (1984), and the Henry Bryant Bigelow Gold Medal from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for distinguished service to oceanography (1979).

In January 1998, Berger was appointed director of the California Space Institute, a statewide education and research center at UC San Diego, where he oversaw basic and applied research in interdisciplinary, space-related fields at UC San Diego and other UC campuses. He officially retired in 2006.

Berger is survived by his wife Karen, and children Karl and Katrina and five grandchildren, Brianna, Lukas, Kaleb, Rohan, and Clara.

A Celebration of Life for Wolf Berger will be held Sunday, October 15 from 4:00-6:00 p.m. at the Martin Johnson House on the Scripps campus: 8840 Biological Grade, La Jolla, CA 92037. The service is open to the public, but please RSVP to Event Manager Donna Shabkie:, 858-822-0723.

In lieu of flowers, the family is suggesting donations to places dear to Berger. Donations can be made to the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy in honor of Wolf Berger (online here or via mail to 3030 Bunker Hill Street, Ste. 309-1, San Diego, CA 92109) or to the “Wolf Berger Memorial Fund” at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego (online here or via mail to 9500 Gilman Drive #0940, La Jolla, CA 92093-0940).

Those wishing to express condolences are invited to submit messages for web posting to

Tributes to Wolf Berger

"We will miss Wolf. And so will Scripps, more than we know. Wolf was very accomplished and received numerous awards, but he also had a great deal of humanity. In retirement, Wolf wrote a lyrical book on oceans and oceanography that told the story of ocean research and the people and institutions who did it. His deep humanity shone through, as did an almost poetic writing style. We had a fine human being and a great scientist with us for more 50 years. Wolf is one of the reasons that Scripps is the legendary place it is to oceanographers and earth scientists."
- Charlie Kennel and Ellen Lehman

"During my ten year term as Director of California Sea Grant, I had the pleasure of interacting with Wolf on many occasions. It was a delight to have a conversation with him on any topic, of which he was invariably knowledgeable. Polite, kind and incredibly informed, I found Wolf a fountain of knowledge and willing to share his wisdom at a moment's notice. I can still picture him sitting in my office conversing on many topics, always in a manner that was captivating. SIO was graced with his presence for many years. Now he will be sorely missed. I am fortunate to have known such a noble person."
- Russ Moll, retired California Sea Grant Director

"Wolf Berger was a Scripps treasure. He was incredibly smart, gentle, and kind, with time for everyone and a great sense of humor. My last email message from Wolf was a response to an all-at-so query from a Birch volunteer about sea-level rise over the last 100 years. In addition to a very thoughtful, detailed answer, and an appended encyclopedia article, he wrote: 'As noted by that great observer, Mark Twain, prediction is difficult, especially the future.' It is hard to imagine Scripps without Wolf. He will be sorely missed."
- Lisa Levin, Distinguished Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

"Wolfgang Berger was ​a generous mentor, guide, and friend for all my years at Scripps​. ​​He was responsible for initiating the thrilling transformation in my career from a marine biologist to a paleoceanographer. I will always be grateful to him. I will miss him dearly."
​- Carina Lange, Research Associate, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

"I am very sorry to hear about the passing of Wolf Berger.  When I first arrived at SIO in 1990, Wolf served as an informal mentor helping to guide me through the complex personalities in GRD.  He was interested in ALL aspects of science. We had occasional informal meetings where he show a genuine interest in my research with questions that went well beyond the simple results and into the speculative and complex implications of my research and how it fit into the broader scheme of oceanographic processes.  I enjoyed all these discussions from 1990 until about 6 months ago when we last chatted outside of IGPP. The most important thing I learned from Wolf was how to teach large undergraduate classes. After arriving at SIO I began to co-teach SIO 10 “The Earth” with Wolf. You can imagine “The Earth” is a rather large topic and the textbooks included hundreds of pages of everything. I was fretting about how to cram all of this information into a single quarter. Wolf pulled me aside and asked the bigger question. What would you want these students to know 10 years from now? Most were non-science majors looking for an easy course to fulfill a requirement so all of the details are irrelevant. He said they should know about climate change and what drives it. I remember attending one of his lectures that was focused on the amount of CO2 per unit of energy for different types of fossil fuels.  He drove home the fact that coal produces almost a factor of 2 more CO2 than natural gas so the use of coal should be reduced. Another of his favorite topics for “The Earth” class was coastal processes. He believed that the students should understand coastal processes and the value of the beaches in San Diego so they would be informed voters later in life. Wolf wrote a clear and concise book on the topic but he probably felt that it did not have enough scientific rigor for publication so he published it himself and gave it away to interested people. The title of the book is Walk Along the Ocean and I keep a scanned copy on our website. I urge everyone to read his unpublished work. The introduction is quite poetic and a reflection of how Wolf viewed the world from many perspectives."
- David Sandwell, Professor of Geophysics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

"I took a Marine Geology class from Wolf Berger in the 1990s, part of the required core curriculum. He had a very distinctive teaching style— he’d sit and ask us one question after another, about why we thought a certain phenomena took place in nature, in the manner of Socrates. He had the air of a very patient man, albeit one always seemed mildly disappointed with our answers. He conducted wonderful field trips and tours of the geology and turbidity current formations around La Jolla, and his class is one of my favorite memories of my early graduate career, and helped install in me a lifelong interest in Milankovitch cycles. My condolences to his family, I’m sorry to hear he has passed."
- Aaron Thode, Research Scientist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

"I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of my thesis advisor, life-long mentor and cherished colleague, Wolf Berger. In all honesty, I thought Wolf was immortal. He was always larger than life. He was a demanding but fantastic advisor and mentor. He had a remarkable mind with an amazingly intuitive feel for how the ocean (and indeed the entire earth system) worked. It was always a humbling experience to discuss science (or almost anything) with Wolf – he had a steel-trap mind for facts (though when appropriate could selectively forget things like administrative tasks) and if he did not know the facts would derive the answer from first principles. It was well worth the feelings of inadequacy to be privy to his remarkable insights. I will never forget how, on ODP Leg 130, Wolf took some of our newly derived high-resolution down-core logs, spent a couple of days in his room and then re-appeared to show me how, by fitting these curves with shifted sine and cosine curves, he was able to extract the periodicities of variation that corresponded to the Milankovitch Cycles. He had derived Fourier analysis from first principles using a LOTUS spreadsheet! As I evolved from student to colleague, I learned of Wolf’s deep caring and kindness (something it is often possible for a graduate student to miss) -- caring about local environmental issues and sharing his deep knowledge of how the earth worked with children and the broader public. He was as generous with his brilliance as his brilliance was large. His wisdom and insights have helped define the field of paleoceanography and his legacy has influenced, and will continue to influence, our understanding of the oceans for generations to come. We have lost a great scientist, a great colleague and a wonderful person."
- Larry A. Mayer, Professor and Director, School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/NOAA-UNH Joint Hydrographic Center, University of New Hampshire

"In 2008, after Dr. Berger offered free copies to the SIO community of his children’s book, Feed Me: the Story of Penny the Penguin Chick, I asked him if he would speak to my daughter’s 1st grade class and he agreed. The topic of the presentation was: 'Polar bears, penguins, whales and seals: life in the ice.’ Dr. Berger wrote to me: 'I would expect the kids to do drawings and make up statements by the animals: if animals could speak, what would they say. Put it on the picture, like in a cartoon.' That was a special day and I will be forever grateful to him for enlightening those first graders with observations from his trip to Antarctica. Each child was given a copy of the Feed Me book and in return they did create thank you letters and drawings."
- Carol Bailey-Sumber, California Sea Grant

"Very sorry to hear of Wolf's passing. Wolf served as interim director of Scripps when I arrived here in 1996 and in that capacity he wrote exquisitely cohesive and poetic weekly addresses to the Scripps community. I tried to find an example, but alas it was too long ago...perhaps they are archived somewhere...the one thing by Wolf that I found addressed to all-at-SIO is the following reply to an FYI message from Ralph Keeling about a very broad search to fill a climate science faculty position...from 2006....see below. This gives a small glimpse into Wolf's multidimensional mind. Condolences and best wishes to all."
- Sasha Gershunov, Research Meteorologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

========================== an email by Wolf cc'd to all-at-SIO ==========================
Ralph, Richard, Richard, Kim,
I suggest including in this task a very serious looking for someone who deals with climate change and ecosystems. Perhaps ask the folks in the Arizona Tree Ring Lab for advice? Seems that Dan Cayan's work is getting a lot of attention, mainly because his results have implications for the water cycle and vegetation, and hence agriculture and also the supply of water to municipalities. Think applied sciences. Remember, even Kepler did applied science. (He made horoscopes for his Prince, Rudolf.) It didn't prevent him from finding fundamental laws of planetary motions. Regards, Wolf


"I met Dr. Berger in the 1970s working for Dr. Thierstein. They were both in paleocanography. They had long conversations in German every day while I 'washed' sediments from the Deep Sea Drilling Project. Later, I took a course (as an employee) with them for SIO's graduate students. They were excellent teachers. I saw Dr. Berger again in 1997 and he gave me very good advice about seeking for a job again as a laboratory assistant. It is very sad to know that students will not be able to learn from his experience in oceanography and in life."
- M. Carmen Chavez, English-Spanish Translator

"I am so very sorry to hear of Wolf's passing. I have so many good memories of him as my advisor (1971-1975) - ranging from his excitedly recounting his latest ideas on how the ocean works, to harsh words (deserved) for 'not knowing the literature,' to the 10 am banter over coffee with Fred Phleger, Franny Parker, and our pod of grad students and post docs, to wonderful times with him at sea. He strongly influenced my approach to science and to life. I shall miss him."
- Tom Johnson, Regents Professor Emeritus of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth; Adjunct Professor of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst

"I am saddened to learn of the passing of Wolf Berger. We arrived together at Scripps in September 1963 to begin our studies of the ocean. Together with Ross Heath, another new student, we shared rooms at a house on Prospect Street, and spent hours discussing many topics. He had a vast and wide-ranging interest in many topics. He was also a powerful swimmer who never needed fins to get out through storm surf. I will miss him."
- Bob Stewart, Professor Emeritus of Oceanography, Texas A&M University

"Wolf and I were long-term friends since I first met him at Scripps in 1963. At that time, I was a young and somewhat naive postdoctoral fellow, fresh from Australia, at the beginning of several wonderful years at Scripps. And I remember Wolf as that very tall German, who was completing his brilliant work which comprised his thesis and which led to his subsequent brilliant career. And although our paths, due to the “tyranny of distance,” separated many years ago, it was always a pleasure to catch up with him during my subsequent visits to Scripps. My condolences, from far-away Australia, go to Karen and his family!"
- Chris vonderBorch, Tasmania

"I am sad to hear of the passing of Wolf. I met Wolf and his wife Karen about 10 years ago when we working on printing a couple of books together. What a neat couple. May you rest in peace."
- Chris Cary

Attached file: Audio oral history of Wolf Berger, recorded June 7, 2012. Courtesy: UC Regents

Related Image Gallery: Wolf Berger

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