Coastal science legend Doug Inman dies at 95
Doug Inman, a La Jolla scientist who became known as the founder of coastal oceanography for his insights about the subtle and brutal ways that nature and people shape the world’s coastlines, died on Feb. 11 at Thornton Hospital. He was 95.
Inman died of natural causes, said officials at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he was on the faculty for about 60 years.
His career sprang from lessons he learned about the coastal zone when he was serving in the South Pacific as a Marine during World War II. Inman went on to revolutionize science’s understanding of how waves and currents transport sand, work that helps with everything from fighting beach erosion to placing harbors and jetties in the right spots.
Inman’s research also helped lead to the creation of the California Coastal Commission. And he broadly aided the U.S. military, recommending sites for coastal bases during the Vietnam War, and getting Israel and Egypt to collobrate on science projects during periods of great tension between the two nations.
He also helped to introduce scuba diving to marine research, and mentored dozens of graduate students, many who went on to create or run major laboratories around the world.
Scripps Director Margaret Leinen said in a statement, “So much of what we know about our coasts and how the ocean interacts with land comes thanks to Doug Inman. We are now in an era in which we anticipate substantial changes to coastlines in the face of sea-level rise and extreme weather events.
“Not just scientists but society as a whole would be at a tremendous disadvantage in attempting to cope with an uncertain future had Doug not created the foundation of our understanding of the main interface between people and the oceans.”
Inman was born on Guam on July 7, 1920, where his father was serving as a captain in the Marines. The family later lived in several other countries before they settled in La Mesa.
“I grew up all over the world, so I knew a lot about the ocean,” Inman told historian Laura Harkewicz.
In 1942, he earned a dual bachelor’s degree in physics and geology at San Diego State, which was then a college instead of a university. He was in the Marine Corps reserves at the time and was soon called for service in World War II. Inman ended up in the South Pacific, where he helped figure out how to get radar equipment through treacherous surf. It was an eye-opener that fanned his interest in coastal oceanography.
Inman resumed his education in 1946, initially enrolling as a graduate student at Caltech. He left as soon as he heard that Scripps was introducing the nation’s first organized course in oceanography.
“They were dumbfounded that anyone would be silly enough to go to this unknown little field station down in La Jolla and leave Caltech,” Inman told Harkewicz.
Scripps wasn’t little or insignificant. During the war, it emerged as the University of California’s main naval research center in Southern California. And it was home to such renowned figures as Walter Munk, an oceanographer who helped plan the D-Day landings at Normandy, and Roger Revelle, a climate scientist who became known as the “father of the greenhouse effect.”
Revelle also helped to found the Office of Naval Research and made sure that Scripps received heavy funding from the Navy for decades. Inman was among the beneficiaries. He received money to explore the interaction between the ocean and the land, particularly the movement of sand, which is often hard to see and measure.
“There was no direct known relation between waves, currents and sediment transport,” Inman told historian Ronald Rainger.
Inman figured out the basics of that relationship with help from Munk and other scientists. Some of the work was done off La Jolla, where Inman studied how sand would build up at the head of submarine canyons, then suddenly slide into deeper water during an avalanche.
“The sand would move really fast; it ended up taking away some of Doug’s flow meters,” the 98 year-old Munk said this week, chuckling at the memory.
Inman knew the offshore waters better than most people. Scripps says that, in 1948, he became the first person on the West Coast to use scuba gear co-developed by Jacques Cousteau. And in 1964, Inman squeezed into the “diving saucer,” a two-person submarine that Cousteau had developed and used it to explore Scripps marine canyon.
“In places the walls (of the canyon) are so close together that it was impossible to get the saucer through to the bottom,” Inman and his colleagues said in a report for the journal Science.
Inman’s work had many practical applications, which didn’t go unnoticed. The military sought his advice when it was planning Inchon, the famous amphibious landing during the Korean War. The assault included thousands of Marines from Camp Pendleton. The military also sought Inman’s help in choosing the best spots for harbors and bases during the Vietnam War.
“Doug was an anti-war liberal, but he was a real patriot,” said Scott Jenkins, a Scripps oceanographer who studied under Inman. “When his country needed him, he was there. At one point, the helicopter he was traveling in got shot down. He survived and kept working.”
Jenkins said he was equally impressed by Inman’s work on the Middle East Cooperative Study, a long-term effort to get scientists from Israel and Egypt to collaborate on research involving environmental issues in the Nile River delta.
In 1979, the two countries signed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, ending decades of war. Tension remained. But Inman successfully pushed for a secret meeting at Scripps involving scientists from Israel and Egypt. The meeting cultivated greater scientific cooperation.
“Doug was a science ambassador,” Jenkins said. “He helped get those countries talking after the peace treaty was signed.”
Environmental and political issues were always on Inman’s mind. By his own account, he “agitated” for the creation of the California Coastal Commission, which was established by voters in 1972. The commission has used his research in making decisions about whether to allow buildings and other structures to be placed along the coast. But he wasn’t always happy with the board, saying that it was prone to emphasizing regulations over planning.
Such remarks weren’t unusual; Inman was a very candid person. In 2006, he told Harkewicz that Scripps had become bogged down by bureaucracy over the previous decade, and that it bothered him.
But Inman was better known for his lust for life and science.
“It wasn’t hard to find him,” Jenkins said. “Every day at noon, he’d go down to the beach, roll out a straw mat and eat a bagged lunch. He loved to talk to people about science. He was a real extrovert when it came to that.”
Munk remembers him the same way, saying, “He was a wonderful member of the Scripps family. We’re going to miss him a lot.”
Scripps said in a statement that Inman “is survived by his wife, retired Scripps marine archaeologist Patricia Masters; son Bryce Inman, a PhD candidate at Scripps; and sons from his first wife Ruth, who died in 1978, John Inman of Campo, Calif. and Scott Inman of Sedona, Ariz. He is also preceded in death by son Mark, who died in 1975.”