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In memory of a scholar and a friend

I am left bereft by the news of the untimely departure of Seymour.

I met Seymour at the beginning of his scientific voyage in the UK, during which we periodically met and joined forces. We have shared our experiences of  deep lows and ultimate highs, drinking sessions and often heated scientific debates. He was a passionate professional colleague which over the years became a trusted friend.

In 1986, Seymour first came from MSSL to visit me at Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge to talk about sea ice “echoes”, around the time I was finishing up my own research on ice altimetry. I had investigated  airborne altimeter echoes collected over sea ice with a UK airborne instrument flown by NASA, but developed to prepare for future ESA satellite altimeters.  Seymour grasped how to take the sea ice results much further, and quickly advanced to bigger and better things. Our conversation was at the outset of his successful scientific career  - arguably built on the foundation of a simple attribute of sea ice altimeter echoes  known as “pulse peakiness” , a term Seymour helped coin in 1987. Seymour studied this aspect of altimetry until he appreciated and understood it fully enough to exploit it. It became the foundation of methodologies he developed  to retrieve marine geoid in sea ice covered regions, to separate sea ice echoes from  ocean echoes, and ultimately to retrieve sea ice thickness.

After pioneering research using ERS-1 and -2 and Envisat altimetry, Seymour contributed to the winning CryoSat Earth Explorer mission proposal to ESA. This success was justified by CryoSat’s  ability to measure sea ice thickness and volume changes, coupled with recognition of the importance of the role of polar ice in climate.  The sea ice elements of the proposal were based in part on Seymour’s 10 years of pioneering work.

Though I at the time working in California (at JPL/Caltech), I was attracted by the prospect to return to Europe with a CryoSat-related job offer.  What sealed my decision to return in 1999 was the opportunity to lead the science preparations for CryoSat at ESA, and to work closely with UCL and Seymour again on sea ice altimetry.  Were it not for this, I believe I may still be in Pasadena…

CryoSat was not for the faint hearted! We collectively experienced a rollercoaster ride, marked by several  years of intense preparations for CryoSat-1 which were abruptly terminated by the spectacular loss of the mission at launch. This was followed by all round noble efforts to quickly recover from this loss with approval for a reflight. The strength of the CryoSat mission was resoundingly revalidated with the financial support to fly CryoSat-2.  The rest is more positive history – with the successful launch and recent flow of new scientific discoveries.


Throughout the long wait to CryoSat-2 success Seymour  stayed the course, remained true to his goals, and had the opportunity to prove that he was right. I will remember Seymour as a pioneer, at times obsessive about thoroughly solving a scientific problem. But importantly, he was as warm and as sincere and compassionate a human being who you could meet. He was equally one who was not willing to sacrifice the good things in life along the way.

I am happy to have had the recent opportunity see Seymour for one last time in November 2012 in Frascati at the Cryosphere meeting.  I feel privileged to have shared many such moments with Seymour throughout the 27 years since we first met.

Seymour you have left us too soon: may your star continue to burn brightly.


Cryosat reaching for the heavens

My heartfelt condolences to Seymour’s closest ones.

Mark Drinkwater

European Space Agency