UM Rosenstiel School Celebrates 75th Anniversary of its Founding

UM Rosenstiel School Celebrates 75th Anniversary of its Founding

The pioneering research being conducted by UM Rosenstiel School researchers today, continues to drive new knowledge about South Florida’s local environment, including the impacts from climate change and sea-level rise, and the global earth system.

Photo: Sevag Mehterian 

MIAMI—The University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is celebrating its 75th anniversary of pioneering Earth system research and education.

In the fall of 1940, 31-year-old British scientist F.G Walton Smith and his wife, May, moved to Miami from The Bahamas at the invitation of Bowman F. Ashe, then-president of the University of Miami. Smith, who was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Zoology, began to organize a marine laboratory in Miami, which at the time had a population of less than 250,000 and was considered an ideal location for a tropical marine research laboratory.

The University’s Board of Trustees formally established the UM Marine Laboratory on February 1, 1943 with the three-fold objective of instruction, basic research, and applied marine research—objectives still at the core of the Rosenstiel School’s mission. Smith, the first director of the lab, found a temporary waterfront site for the “Marine Lab,” as it came to be known, in a boathouse on the estate of the late Joseph H. Adams on Belle Isle in Miami Beach.

World War II ushered in a great need for the study of the ocean, which suddenly became a vast but poorly understood and mapped battlefield. With the onset of the cold war, national defense drove funding for ocean sciences, including for the newly established Marine Lab at UM. Motivated by the Soviet submarine threat, underwater acoustics became a dominant research theme. Sonar devices were placed off Key Biscayne and Bimini to develop oceanic acoustic signatures to better detect submarines.

In 1948, the University’s College of Arts and Sciences authorized the formation of a new Department of Marine Science, which in connection with the UM Marine Lab, offered curricula in fisheries, marine biology, and oceanography, and consolidated courses offered in various departments in the new department leading to a master’s degree. The first two Master of Science Degrees in Marine Biological Science were awarded in June 1949.

In 1969, the Institute of Marine Science officially became a school and was named the Dorothy and Lewis Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in recognition of a major gift from the Rosenstiel Foundation. 

“From its humble beginnings 75 years ago, the Rosenstiel School has grown into one of the world’s leading academic oceanographic institutions by staying true to its mission to deepen our collective knowledge of the planet through cutting-edge scientific research while training the next generation of scientists,” said Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar. “The early intentions set forth by our founders is what will continue to lead the institution into its foreseeable future of transformational research and academics.”

An early scientific achievement came in January 1947, when Dr. Smith and Robert H. Williams assistant director of the Marine Lab, and their students set out to study patches of discolored water off the coast of southwest Florida and large quantities of dead and dying fish that had washed ashore. After extensive collecting, water sampling, and analysis, the scientific team wrote a careful description and named a new species of the single-celled dinoflagellate, Gymnodinium brevis, that was causing the red tide that was poisonous to fish.

Groundbreaking studies on commercial and sport fisheries, hurricanes, climate, sea level rise, air-sea interactions, marine geology, coastal zones, and coral reefs formed the basis of early research at the school.

In 1953, a high-powered radar transmitter system on UM’s main campus led to the development of the Radar Research Laboratory within the Marine Laboratory. Meteorologists used the lab to track tropical storms and to research hurricane structure and internal motions. The lab was used to augment their courses on the theory and application of weather radars—courses that were taught to National Weather Service personnel from all over the country.

In 1957, Gilbert L. Voss proposed that an extensive area of the Hawk Channel, bank, and coral reefs seaward of Key Largo be preserved. His efforts garnered strong local and statewide support, including that of The Miami Herald, resulting in the establishment of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in March 1960.

In January 1957, Cesare Emiliani came to the University to work on foraminiferatiny microscopic organisms that are abundant in the fossil record. Dr. Emiliani was interested in understanding the great climate changes known to have occurred during the Pleistocene Age, and important clues about these changes were believed at the time to exist in these tiny shells deposited on the seafloor. Today, Rosenstiel researchers use the school’s extensive sediment core collection to study foraminifera and climate changes.

In 1977, a unique scientific public-private partnership between the Rosenstiel School and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), known as the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS), was formed to conduct scientific studies of our oceans and atmosphere and to explore everything from improving hurricane forecasts and climate modeling to making fish stocks more economically and environmentally sustainable. This institute has continuously grown over the years and remains to this day a key collaboration between the School and NOAA.

In 2010, the school’s research catamaran, F.G. Walton Smith, was among the first responders to arrive at the scene of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Within hours, scientists from the Department of Ocean Sciences and Marine Biology and Ecology quickly developed a research protocol to begin assessing where oil from the spill would spread via ocean currents through the Gulf and how it would impact marine life. And so began one of the largest oceanographic and biological oil spill research consortia led by the Rosenstiel School.

In 2014, the School reorganized into five departments: Ocean Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Marine Geosciences, Marine Biology, and Marine Ecosystems and Society. Together with this administrative reorganization, new undergraduate and graduate programs were created and introduced by each department to enhance the School’s presence in higher education.

Today, the Rosenstiel School's main campus located on Virginia Key forms part of a specially designated 65-acre marine research and education park that includes two NOAA laboratories and a dedicated marine and science technology high school. The School also operates a 78-acre advanced satellite reception and analysis center in southern Miami-Dade County and an experimental station at Broad Key. The School's basic and applied research interests encompass virtually all marine and atmospheric-related sciences. To perform cutting-edge research, the School benefits from exceptional facilities that include a unique wind-wave tank capable of producing different types of waves under hurricane-force winds, a research catamaran, multiple small boatsscientific dive office, a research helicopter a CITES-certified Marine Invertebrate Museum and a high-performance computing center.

From the impact of climate change and sea level rise to the study of the global earth system, The pioneering research being conducted by UM Rosenstiel School researchers today continues to drive new knowledge about South Florida and the global earth system.