Coast Guard marine science manager serves nation for 48 years

After earning his PhD in geophysics from University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson served his nation for nearly half a century.

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Written by Walter T. Ham IV

Michael Emerson, the director of the Coast Guard Marine Transportation System Directorate, presents Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson with Commandant’s Distinguished Career Service Award (plaque) and Coast Guard Civilian Service Commendation Medal (on lapel). Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Eric Stahl.
Michael Emerson, the director of the Coast Guard Marine Transportation System Directorate, presents Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson with Commandant’s Distinguished Career Service Award (plaque) and Coast Guard Civilian Service Commendation Medal (on lapel). Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Eric Stahl.

After earning his PhD in geophysics from University of Wisconsin-Madison, the U.S. Coast Guard marine science program manager served his nation for nearly half a century. 

Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson, a former U.S. Army officer, U.S. Navy civilian and U.S. Coast Guard civilian, recently concluded a 48-year uniformed and civilian career at Coast Guard Headquarters.

As part of the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Waterways and Ocean Policy, the marine science program empowers Coast Guardsmen with information that enables them to succeed in today’s complex operating environment.  

From conducting the first oceanographic survey ofAlaska to providing the weather data for the D-Day landings, marine science has contributed to the security and prosperity of the United States since the inception of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services.  

Berkson was recognized for his contributions to this storied legacy during his August retirement ceremony.  He earned the Distinguished Career Service Award for his enduring impact on Coast Guard and nationwide marine science programs.

He also earned the Civilian Service Commendation Medalfor forging an agreement between Coast Guard and WeatherFlow, Inc., that created a network of meteorological sensors on Coast Guard Aids to Navigation (ATON).  Signed in 2008 and renewed in 2018, the 10-year Memorandum of Agreement allows Weatherflow sensors to be placed on selected U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation. 

“The MOA established the public-private partnership that established a network of high quality, well-sited weather observations in the data-sparse coastal zone where weather is often at its greatest variability and volatility,” according to the medal citation.

There are 141 stations in eight Coast Guard districts.  The agreement also grants the U.S. Coast Guard access to information from 350 non-Coast Guard-based sensors for official use.

At no cost to the taxpayers, Weatherflow provides the Coast Guard with the meteorological and oceanographic data it gathers from the sensors to support the service’s safety, security and stewardship missions.  

The meteorological information from Weatherflow sensors on Coast Guard Aids to Navigation is critical for providing accurate forecasts and post-storm analysis for hurricanes and other extreme weather events, according to the National Hurricane Center.   

During Hurricane Florence in 2018, three of the 10 stations recording the highest winds were from Weatherflow sensors placed on U.S. Coast Guard stations. 

Before going to graduate school, Berkson served as a U.S. Army officer in the Dominican Republic, South Korea and at Fort Lee, Virginia.  

After earning his doctorate, Berkson served as a U.S. Navy civilian for 25 years, conducting research on marine geophysics and underwater acousticsat the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.; Undersea Research Center in La Spezia, Italy; and Naval Research Laboratory, Stennis Space Center, Mississippi.

He then reported to the Coast Guard Headquarters in 1998 and tackled some of the most pressing issues facing the nation, from mapping the extended continental shelf to improving sea-ice and ice berg information.

Berkson, a Champaign, Illinois native who earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics from the University of Illinois,helped to design the science suite used on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20), the nation’s only medium ice breaker.  Healy is currently deployed and that suite is being used today to conduct research.

He also supported the International Ice Patrol, the U.S Coast Guard effort to map ice bergs in North Atlantic shipping lanes that began after the Titanic sank in those same shipping lanes more than a century ago.  

Dr. Jonathan Berkson (right) and Dr. T.K. Kan (left), researchers from the University of Wisconsin Geophysical and Research Center, map the underside of the sea with a sector-scan sonar they placed through a hole drilled through the 10-foot thick sea ice at location in the Arctic Ocean about 340 nautical miles from the North Pole in April 1972.  Photo Courtesy of Dr. T. K. Kan.
Dr. Jonathan Berkson (right) and Dr. T.K. Kan (left), researchers from the University of Wisconsin Geophysical and Research Center, map the underside of the sea with a sector-scan sonar they placed through a hole drilled through the 10-foot thick sea ice at location in the Arctic Ocean about 340 nautical miles from the North Pole in April 1972. Photo Courtesy of Dr. T. K. Kan.

“Dr. Berkson provided superior science advice for the Ice Operations Program, including polar and domestic icebreaking, International Ice Patrol and National Ice Center,” said Cmdr. Michael S. Krause, the former chief of the Coast Guard Mobility and Ice Operations Division and current Personnel Service Center Field Support Branch Chief.

“He coordinated science support with both Coast Guard and external partners for countless high-profile missions, including Healy’s 2005 trans-Arctic crossing and Healy’s successful emergency winter break-in and fuel resupply of Nome, Alaska, in 2012.”

Leveraging seafloor mapping research conducted on the USCGC Healy, Berkson also represented the Coast Guard on the State Department’s Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, which is designed to establish the outer limits of the extended continental shelf in accordance with international law.  

From the left, Dr. Lisa Clough from East Carolina University, Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson and Jack Bash from University of Rhode Island stand in the "Science Conning Station" of USCGC Healy (WABG-20), coordinating the testing of science equipment during Healy Science Trials in February 2000.  After successful sea trials, Healy was commissioned in August 2000.  U.S. Coast Guard photo.
From the left, Dr. Lisa Clough from East Carolina University, Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson and Jack Bash from University of Rhode Island stand in the “Science Conning Station” of USCGC Healy (WABG-20), coordinating the testing of science equipment during Healy Science Trials in February 2000. After successful sea trials, Healy was commissioned in August 2000. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In addition to representing the Coast Guard on task forces for the science-related aspects of incidents of national significance, including Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Super Storm Sandy, Berkson served on numerous international and interagency boards, councils and committees.

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, PhD, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Deputy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator, worked with Berkson for more than a decade.

Gallaudet is also the former Oceanographer of the U.S. Navy and former commander of the Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Commandand he served with Berkson on numerous task forces.

“It was a distinct honor and privilege to work with Jon – both in my current and past roles with NOAA and Navy,” said Gallaudet. “Dr. Berkson’s expertise in marine science and Coast Guard operations contributed to the success of a wide range of Navy and NOAA activities, including the Navy’s Task Force Ocean, Task Force Climate Change and actions directed in the Navy Arctic Roadmap.” 

“Dr. Berkson also contributed to NOAA’s Interdepartmental Committee for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research and coordinated with NOAA on numerous collaborative activities regarding the Arctic,” said Gallaudet.  “In short, Jon has been an invaluable partner and friend over the last ten years of my career when I served in leadership positions in both the Navy and NOAA, and I am extremely grateful for his service.”

Dr. Jack Kaye, the NASA Associate Director for the Research of the Earth Science Division, said Berkson had represented the Coast Guard and the nation well through his interagency work.

“Jon Berkson has been a marvelous partner in interagency activities over the years related to oceanography and meteorology,” said Kaye.  “Jon was a dedicated civil servant who always did his best to represent the interests of the Coast Guard and the U.S. government and was a consummate team player.” 

“I always appreciated his articulate comments, cooperative nature and disciplinary and technical knowledge,” Kaye added. “He was a valued source of input and ideas relative to the respective roles and synergies for NASA and USCG in the interagency environment.” 

Helen Brohl, the executive director of the Committee for the U.S. Marine Transportation System (CMTS), said Berkson’s expertise helped to guide interagency efforts on the Arctic and extreme weather.  The CMTS includes more than 25 Federal agencies and covers the nation’s waterways, ports and intermodal connections. 

“We are grateful for the time and talent that Dr. Berkson contributed to the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System,” said Brohl.  “We are indebted for his expertise in the CMTS Maritime Transportation Extreme Weather Report to Congress and to develop a key foundational document which assessed and made recommendations on the state of a marine transportation system in the U.S. Arctic.  Mostly, we will miss Jon’s positive demeanor and collegiality.”

To contribute to the enduring legacy of the marine science program, Berkson also mentored future senior Coast Guard officers.  As the director of the Coast Guard’s Marine Science postgraduate educational program, he helped to identify officers for the most prestigious graduate schools and for follow on Coast Guard assignments.

“By carefully selecting promising officers and assisting them in their academic and professional growth, Dr. Berkson ensured a continual depth of Marine Science knowledge for years to come,” said Krause, the former Mobility and Ice Operations Division chief.

One of those officers, Cmdr. Jonathan A. Andrechik, graduated from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego in 2007 and then served as an instructor of Marine Science at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

“His steady leadership and innovative spirit have directly contributed to the expansion of academic and professional opportunities available to officers enrolled in the Coast Guard’s Marine Science Oceanography Post-Graduate Program,” said Andrechik.  

Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson (right) with Rear Adm. James Watson (left) and Dr. Julie Morris of the National Science Foundation (middle) at President George W. Bush's September 2008 presentation on the U.S. Ocean Action Plan, which was the Bush Administration's plan to implement recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Photo courtesy of Dr. J.M. Berkson.
Dr. Jonathan M. Berkson (right) with Rear Adm. James Watson (left) and Dr. Julie Morris of the National Science Foundation (middle) at President George W. Bush’s September 2008 presentation on the U.S. Ocean Action Plan, which was the Bush Administration’s plan to implement recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Photo courtesy of Dr. J.M. Berkson.

“As the Coast Guard evolved in its organization and missions over the years, Dr. Berkson continued to highlight the relevance of the Marine Science Program to today’s Coast Guard – relevance I have personally noted while executing missions in the field, teaching Academy cadets and working on national ocean policy issues,” said Andrechik.

“Fellow alumni and I very much appreciate Jon’s mentorship over the years, and we congratulate him on his nearly 50 years of Federal service,” said Andrechik, who serves as program reviewer in the Office of Budget and Programs (CG-821) at the Coast Guard Headquarters. 

Berkson said it was an honor to serve as the marine science program manager for the world’s greatest Coast Guard and to contribute to its legacy of safety, security and stewardship across U.S. waterways.

“I was lucky to transfer to the Coast Guard in 1998 because a transformative period in marine science and its application to Coast Guard operations was about to start,” said Berkson. 

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