Press Release

Polar Science Leader Peter Wilkniss Passes

By SpaceRef Editor
June 23, 2005
Filed under , ,

Statement by Karl A. Erb, director of the Office of Polar Programs

June 21, 2005

On behalf of the Office of Polar Programs, I wish to express deep regrets at the passing of Peter E. Wilkniss, who set the agenda for polar science at the National Science Foundation (NSF) during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and whose legacy of leadership continues today.

Dr. Wilkniss died earlier this month at the age of 70 at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

While at NSF, he served as director of the Division of Polar Programs (DPP) when it was part of the Directorate for Geosciences. He continued to direct the activities of the Office of Polar Programs when it was relocated to the office of the NSF director.

He made numerous contributions to the advancement of polar science.

During his tenure, construction began to consolidate laboratory spaces at McMurdo Station into a single building, which is known as the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center. Wilkniss received the American Institute of Architects’ Presidential Citation in 1993 for his work.

He was a prime mover in the late 1980’s to establish the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), an international consultative body.

Wilkniss was also DPP director during the National Ozone Expeditions in the 1980’s, which were instrumental in determining the causes of the so-called Ozone Hole in the Southern Hemisphere.

He oversaw the completion of the ice-breaking research vessel, Nathaniel B. Palmer, which continues to conduct science operations in the Southern Ocean.

Wilkniss was a key player in establishing NSF’s Arctic research programs and was also influential in encouraging greater participation by women in polar science.

Wilkniss joined NSF in 1975. He served as deputy assistant director for the Director for Scientific, Technological, and International Affairs. He also served on the staff of what was then the Directorate for Astronomical, Atmospheric, Earth, and Ocean Sciences; as program officer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research; a program manager for the Ocean Sediment Coring program; and as division director for Ocean Drilling Programs. Wilkniss served as the senior science associate to a previous NSF director and was designated a “Distinguished Executive” by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Prior to joining the Foundation, Wilkniss was head of the Chemical Oceanography Branch of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Ocean Sciences Division in Washington, D.C.

After leaving NSF in the late 1990’s, he moved to Alaska, where he founded the Transnational Arctic and Antarctic Institute, which, among other projects, supported the computer-assisted translation of Alaska Native languages to  preserve the languages themselves and to improve communication among various native language speakers and between them and English speakers.

The community of polar researchers is small. Even smaller is that group of people who have left a lasting mark on polar science. Both of those groups are sadly diminished by Peter Wilkniss’ death.

Daily, we in OPP both benefit from and celebrate his legacy as one of the community’s leading lights.

We offer our condolences to his loved ones.

SpaceRef staff editor.