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In Memoriam: David Thomas Pugh, the scientist and IOC-UNESCO Chair who took the ocean community forward

Date: 12 August 2022

The IOC community is deeply saddened by the news that our esteemed friend and colleague, Dr David Pugh passed away on 1st August 2022 in Wales. David Thomas Pugh was born in July 1943 in Liverpool, United Kingdom, at the height of World War II. He graduated from University College London and later from Cambridge University in 1968 with a PhD in Geodesy and Geophysics.

Throughout his scientific life David studied how geodetic levelling - a surveying method for precisely measuring the difference in height between two places - can be used to develop new methods for measuring extreme sea levels. He also curated his interest in the topic of geothermal heat fluxes in the ocean and lakes, returning to it in several later publications, the last being a study of Patagonian lakes (with Liverpool University) in 1998.

In 1969 he joined what came to be called the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL) at Bidston Observatory in the Wirral (UK), where he was involved in working on many aspects of sea-level science. As part of an extensive study of the accuracy and reliability of pressure tide gauges, he developed a new instrument called a ‘bubbler gauge’ which continues to this day as the main technology for measuring sea levels around the UK.

Soon after joining as Director of the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL), at the global data bank for sea level measurements. Together with Professor Klaus Wyrtki (University of Hawaii Sea Level Centre), David realised that, if the PSMSL data bank was to develop as a global repository, then considerable further efforts in monitoring had to be made at intergovernmental level. This led to his proposal for the establishing the Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS) under the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, and the development of the   initial strategy and implementation plan for GLOSS developed in 1983/1984. After the work process had been completed, David liked to joke that they had been locked up in a room at the IOC-UNESCO in Paris for a few days to carry out this task.

In 1984, David’s career changed direction into scientific management after he became Head of Oceanography, Hydrology and Meteorology for the UK National Environment Research Council (NERC). A part of that work involved serving as Secretary to the UK Government Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST) from the early 1990s until 2003. 

David continued to spend considerable time working on international aspects of oceanography, including leading the UK delegation to IOC Governing Bodies. His skills and knowledge were appreciated, and he was later elected Chair of IOC-UNESCO in 2003-2007. During this period he was instrumental in starting up discussions on the development of the International Oceanographic Data Exchange (IODE) Policy, adopted in 2003. David, as IOC-UNESCO Chair, also ensured that the IOC Project Office for IODE was established on a solid basis in 2005. He contributed much to the planning of IOC-UNESCO’s 50th anniversary in 2010 and, linked to this, co-edited (with Geoff Holland) the book Troubled Waters , which not only traced the history of the Commission but identified the challenges facing international marine science and IOC's position within the UN system. The book nicely explained how governments use science to establish ocean policies in issues such as marine pollution, exploitation and hazards.

David also played several other important international roles such as Chairman of a Commission on Sea Level and Tides for the International Association of Physical Sciences of the Oceans, and Chairman of the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data Analysis Services, now part of the World Data System. For all of this work, national and international, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2003.

In spite of the time spent on these science management roles, David kept a vivid interest in all aspects of sea-level science (tides, surges, mean sea level, coastal management and climate change, the economics of marine activities, and the history of sea level research). In 1987, he published the first of his books on ‘Tides, Surges and Mean Sea-Level’ which has been used by an enormous number of researchers and students, followed by a second book (2004) and a third one (2014) on sea-level science co-written with Philip Woodworth. 

After David stepped down as Chair of the GLOSS Group of Experts, he kept a keen interest in the work of GLOSS and whenever in Paris, he usually stopped by UNESCO Headquarters to hear about the latest updates. David continued his research activities and in 2020 he gave two talks at the GLOSS Workshop on Sea level Data Archaeology (10-12 March 2020, Paris).

David Pugh

A photograph by Philip Woodworth showing David Pugh in 2009 doing what he enjoyed most – making temporary sea level measurements.

David Pugh was a fine scientist who saw the need to engage in science management to serve the wider marine community. Personally, he was a kind man who was willing to chat about any subject under the sun and was an excellent companion on field work. He had a great  sense of humour, and a fund of anecdotes and jokes. David was very proud of his Welsh roots and in particular his relatives in the Welsh community in Patagonia.

He is survived by his wife Carole, whom he met at Bidston Observatory, his son Gareth, and by many friends and colleagues in different countries.