Peter Cornillon

  • Emeritus Professor of Oceanography
  • Physical Oceanography
  • Phone: 401.874.6283
  • Email:
  • Office Location: Rm 112 Watkins Laboratory
  • Website


Weather watchers are quite familiar with meteorological fronts, but when Dr. Peter C. Cornillon speaks of fronts he has something else in mind and he does not have to go to sea to study them.

Cornillon’s research involves studying sea surface temperature (SST) fronts that are places on the ocean’s surface that have temperature gradients.

“Obviously the temperature of the ocean is important but that is not my main interest. My main interest is using the temperatures to understand what’s going on in the ocean,” says Cornillon.

To conduct his research, Cornillon uses data from several satellites and the data flows continuously onto computer hard drives in his office. The data helps him keep track of changes in surface ocean circulation and temperature distribution, which can be caused by climate change.

Of equal importance to him is making oceanographic data available to other investigators—his dream is to have URI become an archive of oceanographic data.

Cornillon has his Ph.D in experimental high-energy physics and his dream was to land a job at CERN in Switzerland. In fact he did get a job offer from CERN but then said “Okay, that was my dream but I’m going to do something else now and I never went.”

He also had an offer from General Motors in Detroit—“What a decision—Geneva on one hand and Detroit on the other,” he says with a chuckle. “I wanted to go to GM because I thought the automobile was about the biggest disaster on the face of the earth, not just because of the pollution it causes but also how it has ripped the social fabric of everything.” GM was starting a new department whose mission was to determine the impact of automobiles on society. “I was naïve. I thought I would go and fix the problem. I said ‘Particle physics is really fun and Geneva is really great but I am not really contributing to society very much.’ ”

His enthusiasm for the GM job dispersed in about three months. “It was clear that GM had no interest in my views and I learned that corporations have one big obligation and that is to the stockholders.” He stayed with GM for three years and in the duration began to realize that if one wants to know what is good or bad for society, the places to be are universities and non-profit laboratories.

When he was at Cornell, a graduating colleague landed a job at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the idea of getting involved in oceanography continued to intrigue him. Cornillon decided to pursue that course, preferably in the Northeast. He was offered a job at Woods Hole but the offer was contingent on him starting in three days—he declined, saying he had to give notice and had to consider the effect on his wife and two children such a sudden move would have.

But he was advised on what he should do to bone up on oceanography and eventually landed a job in URI’s Department of Ocean Engineering, subbing for someone going on sabbatical.

Cornillon says it was a rough introduction into oceanography but eventually his forte in computer programming led him into the field of modeling.

“I asked myself what was going to be important in the future and determined it was satellites.”

His first small grant allowed him to put together a notebook that would help researchers find all the different environmental satellite sites.

An interesting sign of the times was a bit of advice given to him by colleagues—don’t mention satellites in the titles of his papers, they said—early satellites had shaky reputations when it came to accuracy. But all that has changed now, says Cornillon who notes there is even one satellite aloft that can measure the height of other satellites above the ocean within two centimeters.

Cornillon says “Professionally I have latched onto things that are going to be big in the future.” Looking to the future is something he does all the time. Reading Ray Kurzwell’s book, The Singularity is Near, has led Cornillon to start thinking differently about the future.

“I have a three-year-old granddaughter and I don’t think she will ever have to learn how to drive a car. I think when she is old enough to drive a car there will be cars that drive themselves and I would put money out to buy her one because I think they will be safer than human-driven ones.”

Cornillon is applying his thinking toward the future of oceanography. “I think we should be putting more attention on sensors and platforms for sensors,” he says noting that autonomous crafts are now being built at relatively low cost and without the need for on-board personnel.

“I think that’s thinking about the future—where is technology going to take us, instead of dumping a lot of money in trying to continue to do the things the way we are doing it now.”

“We should be asking where do we want to be 20 years from now?” he continued. And when it comes to hiring new faculty, “we should be hiring faculty members who will be on the cutting edge 10 years from now, not someone who is necessarily on the cutting edge of today.”


Circulation, Climate change, Climate change and ocean circulation, Current measurements, Eddies, Fronts, Large-scale ocean dynamics, Large-scale structures, Observational physical oceanography, Observations of mixing and circulation, Ocean circulation, Ocean current measurements, Ocean dynamics, Oceanic fronts, Remote sensing, Satellite imagery

Peter Cornillon received his PhD in Experimental High Energy Physics from Cornell University in 1973. He joined the Societal Analysis Department of the General Motors Research Laboratory as a systems analyst in 1972. From 1975-1980 he worked as a research faculty member in Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island (URI) addressing issues related to sediment transport and oil spill modeling. In 1981 he moved to the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI focusing on remote sensing as it applies to the physics of the ocean. In order to address data access issues related to the large volumes of satellite-derived data that he was using, Dr. Cornillon began working on distributed data systems in 1992 with his group eventually developing the OPeNDAP data access protocol designed to facilitate access to oceanographic data on the web. In 2007 he shifted the focus of his research from data systems back to remote sensing and currently has an active program in the analysis of sea surface temperature fronts identified in satellite-derived SST fields of the global ocean. Dr. Cornillon’s 90+ peer- reviewed publications cover a broad range of studies from those based on data derived from satellite-borne infrared, color and microwave (both passive and active) instruments to those related to distributed data systems. Dr. Cornillon has also served on numerous committees and working groups related to data management issues such as: NASA’s Global Change Master Directory Advisory Committee, NRC’s Committee on Geophysical and Environmental Data, NSF’s Ocean Information and Technology Infrastructure Working group, NRC’s Committee on Environmental Information for Naval Use, NSF’s Advisory Committees to Geosciences and Polar Programs and NOAA’s Data Archiving and Access Requirements Working Group


Ph.D. Experimental High Energy Physics Cornell University 1973

B.S. Engineering Physics Cornell University 1968

Selected Publications

Buckingham, C. E., P. C. Cornillon, K.M Obenour and F. Schloesser, High Gradient Events and Their Relation to Zonal Bands in Microwave Sea Surface Temperature, J. Geophys. Res., in revision, 2013.

Buckingham, C. E., and P. C. Cornillon, The Contribution of Eddies to Striations in Absolute Dynamic Topography, J. Geophys. Res., 118, 448–461, doi:10.1029/2012JC008231, 2013.

Altintas, I, D. Crawl, C. Crosby and P. Cornillon, Scientific Workflows for the Geosciences: An Emerging Approach to Building Integrated Data Analysis Systems, In R. Keller and C Baru (Eds.), Geoinformatics: Cyberinfrastructure for the Solid Earth Sciences, 237-251. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Barseghian, D., I. Altintas, M.B. Jones, D. Crawl, N. Potter, J. Gallagher, P. Cornillon, M., Schildhauer, E.T. Borer, E.W. Seabloom and P.R. Hosseini, Workflows and extensions to the Kepler scientific workflow system to support environmental sensor data access and analysis, Ecological Informatics,
 5, 42–50. 2010.

Belkin, I.M., P.C. Cornillon, and K. Sherman, Fronts in Large Marine Ecosystems, Progress in Ocean., Progress in Ocean., 81(1-40, 223-236, doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2009.04.015, 2009.

Blower, J.D., F. Blanc, M. Clancy, P. Cornillon, C. Donlon, P. Hacker, K. Haines, S.C. Hankin, T. Loubrieu, S. Pouliquen, M. Price, T. Pugh, A. Srinavasan, Serving GODAE Data and Products to the Ocean Community, Oceanography, 22, 70-79, 2009.

Chassignet, E.P., H.E. Hurlburt, E.J. Metzger, O.M. Smedstad, J.A. Cummings, G.R. Halliwell, R. Bleck, R. Baraille, A.J. Wallcraft, C. Lozano, H.L. Tolman, A. Srinivasan, S. Hankin, P. Cornillon, R. Weisberg, A. Barth, R. He, F. Werner, and J. Wilkin, US GODAE: Global Ocean Prediction with the HYbrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM), 22, 64-75, 2009.