Wolfgang Berger, oceanographer who helped reveal the history of the world’s oceans, dies at 79

Wolfgang “Wolf” Berger
(UC San Diego )

Wolfgang “Wolf” Berger, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher whose big insights about tiny fossils helped reveal the history of the world’s oceans, has died at 79.

The paleoceanographer died in San Diego on Aug. 6, Scripps said. A cause of death was not disclosed.

For more than 40 years, Berger helped define and advance paleoceanography, which encompasses some of the most complex systems in nature, including the circulation of ocean currents and the scattering of marine fossils in deep, dark waters.

He was particularly well-known for his investigation of marine fossils and plankton, using them to examine how Earth’s climate, oceans and atmosphere changed over time.


Berger’s sleuthing began in Germany, where he was born Oct. 5, 1937. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Erlangen in 1961 and a master’s degree at the University of Colorado in 1963. He ended up at UC San Diego, where he earned a doctorate in oceanography at the university’s Scripps Institution in 1968.

He joined the Scripps faculty in 1971, where he became known for his philosophical way of teaching as well as his research.

Scripps researcher Aaron Thode said in statement that Berger “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 the manner of Socrates.”

“He had the air of a very patient man, albeit one [who] always seemed mildly disappointed with our answers,” Thode said.

Larry A. Mayer, a marine researcher at the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement that Berger “was a demanding adviser 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, and if he did not know the facts [he] would derive the answer from first principles,” Mayer said. “It was well worth the feelings of inadequacy to be privy to his remarkable insights.”

Berger’s poetic and philosophic nature spilled over into the emails he wrote to the faculty when he served as interim director of Scripps in 1996 and 1997.

Berger also was the author of a popular textbook, “The Sea Floor,” as well as “Walk Along the Ocean,” a guide to the shoreline of northern San Diego County. He also wrote the children’s book “Feed Me: The Story of Penny the Penguin Chick.”


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

Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune