The ocean always beckoned him, sometimes with foreboding.
George August Maul warned for years that a killer wave in Florida was inevitable. A powerful tsunami traveling as fast as a jetliner will strike our coast, the Virgin Islands, or elsewhere in the Caribbean. He was convinced: It’s just a matter of time.
He would not live to see the tragedy he often warned of and worked tirelessly to prevent.
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Maul, an oceanographer and educator with “a disarming smile and limitless curiosity who made a profound impact on marine and environmental science programs at Florida Tech as a department head, advocate, fundraiser and speaker,” succumbed to cancer Wednesday, Florida Institute of Technology officials announced Thursday.
He was 82.
Maul, of Melbourne Shores, was an accomplished oceanographer, mentor, husband, father, grandfather, writer, captain, and ever-the-Eagle Scout who would pick up cigarette butts on campus. He spoke often at public events about the threat of tsunamis, sea-level rise and hurricanes and became a vocal advocate for integrating tsunami and other hazard warning systems.
In 1985, Maul wrote the first textbook on satellite oceanography. He spent more than a half-century navigating the ocean’s mysteries. Whether debating fellow scientists over global warming and sea-level rise, or warning of the inevitable tsunami that will hit Florida, the ocean’s ways always called out to the New York native.
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Maul’s research included climate change and sea-level rise, ocean circulation, and applications of the global positioning system in meteorology and oceanography. But what he may have been best known for locally was his public seminars, research and advocacy regarding Atlantic tsunami hazards and warnings.
The lure of the sea
As a young man, his ambitions were more humble. The ocean called.
“I wanted to be a ship captain,” Maul told FLORIDA TODAY in 2014 of his early days studying at State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. At the time, he was stepping down after almost 21 years heading FIT’s Department of Marine and Environmental Systems. He’d stepped down to focus on his other passions: teaching and writing.
So many years earlier, at Fort Schuyler, his interest in the sea soon shifted to science. But the ocean still beckoned.
“It was my way out of the ghetto, so to speak,” Maul said with a smile in December 2014 of why he pursued science.
He had good grounding academically. He grew up in upstate New York and in Brooklyn and graduated from the prestigious Brooklyn Tech High School, which specializes in math, science and technology.
At Fort Schuyler, he earned a bachelor’s of science in marine transportation, with honors, and a U.S. Merchant Marine officer’s license. From 1960 through 1969, he served in the commissioned officer corps of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, holding ranks from ensign through lieutenant commander.
Then from 1969 to 1984, he worked as a research oceanographer, and from 1984 to 1994 a supervisory oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s (NOAA) Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami.
He earned his Ph.D. in physical oceanography from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
He’d later teach there as an adjunct professor of meteorology and physical oceanography, while also working as an oceanographer for the federal government.
Making waves about tsunamis
Maul warned for decades about the danger of a tsunami striking the eastern United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas or elsewhere in the Caribbean, and the need for better warnings.
Tsunamis are considered mostly a hazard of the Pacific Ocean and the western Indian Ocean. But Maul made waves for years about the risk the deadly waves pose in the western North Atlantic, especially the Caribbean Sea. He was convinced they merited more attention and better warnings and preparation.
Earthquakes near Puerto Rico or elsewhere could create a tsunami that would reach U.S. shores in three or four hours, Maul warned, dwarfing the coastal devastation wrought by hurricanes. The odds are slim, but it could happen, and did 265 years ago — an event that Maul pointed to often.
In 1755, an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, sent a tsunami into Florida about seven hours later. The impact on the state is unknown because of the sparse population at the time. Maul said a similar event today would create a 5-foot-or-higher tsunami wave slamming into Brevard County and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.
For more than two decades, he urged the federal government to take the issue seriously and create a better warning system for the southeast United States and Caribbean. In 1993, he began writing each subsequent U.S. president, warning them of the inevitability.
A Lisbon-like scenario could pummel oceanfront condos, ships and boats at Port Canaveral, with millions of dollars in property damage, he warned.
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Other scientists have warned of an even more extreme scenario, in which the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma off Western Africa erupts, with huge masses of rock collapsing into the ocean, sending a powerful tsunami toward Florida.
Maul advocated for improved ocean observation and tsunami warning systems, through his leadership roles for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Similar to tornado warnings, tsunami alerts broadcast on weather radios to warn people on or near the beach to rush to safety.
Maul’s warnings bore fruit in 2005 when Indian Harbour Beach became the first “tsunami-ready” city on the East Coast. The designation meant the city now has a specific plan of what to do in a tsunami, takes steps to raise public awareness about the deadly waves, and meets federal guidelines for tsunami readiness.
The pilot program was one in a wave of improvements to tsunami-warning capability planned for Atlantic coastal communities after a December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed more than 200,000 in Asia. By mid-2007, the weather service had installed several buoys in the Atlantic capable of raising a tsunami alarm, heeding the advice of Maul and others.
Large waves had smacked local coastlines for other reasons, Maul would note, hinting at what a tsunami might look like here.
The most recent event resembling a tsunami in east Central Florida came on July 3, 1992, just before midnight, when a rogue wave said to be 18 feet tall hit Daytona Beach without warning. It injured 20 people and damaged 100 cars, according to reports by The Associated Press. Geologists first suspected an underwater landslide caused the wave, but later linked it to a series of thunderstorms that came from the Georgia coast.
A legacy begins
Maul came to Florida Tech in 1994, then for two decades led the school’s Department of Marine and Environmental Systems. He supervised 250 undergraduates and 15 faculty members in oceanography, environmental science, ocean engineering, earth remote sensing, and meteorology.
He also created the school’s undergraduate and graduate meteorology programs, the graduate earth remote sensing program, and raised more than $4 million in endowed fellowships, scholarships and a professorship.
To Mitch Roffer, like many FIT alumnus in the “hard sciences, Maul was an inspiration – the archetypical scientist his students always wanted to be.
Maul mentored Roffer on his Ph.D. committee at the University of Miami.
“He taught me many aspects of satellite oceanography, scientific integrity, objectivity, scientific skepticism, honesty and he helped my scientific writing immensely,” Roffer said. “He was a friend, mentor and neighbor. His imprint on me is significant. It is rare to find such a giving person.”
Roffer said Maul was an early expert on the Gulf of Mexico loop current that twists around Florida and published many papers on the subject.
Maul was chief scientist on numerous oceanographic cruises. He published over 200 journal articles, book chapters, guest editorials, technical reports, refereed abstracts and books on oceanography and meteorology. Among his most recent works was in 2017 — “The Oceanographer’s Companion: Essential Nautical Skills for Seagoing Scientists and Engineers,” which focuses on the basics of navigation, seamanship, marine engineering, safety-of-life-at-sea, ship handling, knots and more.
“Florida Tech’s greatness is reflected in our alumni, and George’s department leadership, classroom acumen and peerless spirit ensured his students were shining examples of the power of a Florida Tech education,” Florida Tech President T. Dwayne McCay said in a statement. “He was a special man who cared deeply about the things that matter – service, faith, charity and the wider world around us.”
Always the Eagle Scout
The only pursuit that may have rivaled Maul’s passion for oceanography was his love of the Boy Scouts, his FIT colleagues said. In 2018, after 59 years as an Eagle Scout, Maul was recognized as one of the top adult Eagle Scouts in Central Florida when he was given the National Eagle Scout Association Outstanding Eagle Scout Award. He volunteered with the Boy Scouts of America, including roles as troop leader and district commissioner, earning the Silver Beaver Award and the Order of the Arrow’s Vigil Honor.
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Rich Aronson, head of FIT’s Department of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences, remembers the honorable scout in Maul well.
“My sweetest memory of him, though, is a simple thing,” said Aronson, who knew Maul since arriving at FIT in 2009. “I was driving onto University Boulevard on my way home one evening a couple of years ago and there was George, ever the Eagle Scout, picking up cigarette butts from Florida Tech’s grounds. He was a mensch in the truest sense of the word.”
They worked together, talked science and “and dreamed dreams together about the university’s marine programs,” Aronson said.
Skeptical of sea-level rise projections
While confident in his tsunami concerns, on global warming Maul was less certain about all the dire predictions.
Florida cities are getting hotter, because of radiation from pavement, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect, Maul often said. But temperature changes elsewhere are less certain and big questions remain, he would assert.
The sea is rising for sure in Florida, he acknowledged, about 9 inches per century. But counter to what some climate scientists conclude, Maul held that the rate was slow and steady, not accelerating.
Many sea-level projection maps did not take into account beach replenishment, he said, and other countermeasures to protect coastlines. Maul wrote a research paper in 2008 that found no statistically significant sea-level rise at the Western Hemisphere’s longest-standing tide gauge, which has been in Key West since 1846. Plus, Florida is sinking in some spots, but building up in others, Maul said.
He often emphasized keeping a long-term historical perspective on climate and marine science. To drive that message home to students, antique oceanographic instruments of historical significance hang from the walls and line the halls of the school’s marine sciences department, where some 250 students and faculty probe the mysteries of the marine world.
Maul was most proud, he said in 2014, of the plaques hanging from one wall that represent the $4 million in endowments garnered under his tenure.
“I’m really pleased to have been able to help make that happen,” Maul said at the time. “When I’m long gone, there’ll be scholarships for students forever.”
He cherished the transformations he saw in his students, he said, as they grew into young scientists, with that same beckoning from the ocean’s mysteries that inspired him as a young New Yorker.
“Without a doubt, the favorite part of the job is working with the students,” he said in 2014.
They will carry on his voyage.
Maul and his wife of 58 years, Carole, have two daughters, Anne Richards and Patricia Maul, a grandson Christopher Maul, and son-in-law Robert Richards.
Maul will be cremated and his ashes buried in the memorial garden — laid to rest near the ocean he adored so much — at Saint Sebastian’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Melbourne Beach.
Funeral arrangements are pending, and the funeral will be limited to family and immediate friends; however, the service will also be carried via Zoom and Facebook Live. Maul will be cremated and his ashes buried in the memorial garden at Saint Sebastian’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Melbourne Beach.
In lieu of flowers, tax-deductible donations are welcome for the Maul Family Student Scholar Award in Oceanology, Office of Development, Florida Institute of Technology, 150 W. University Blvd., Melbourne 32901.
Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: George Maul, former Florida Tech department head, tsunami expert, had passions for the sea and science