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In Memoriam: Christopher Sommerfield

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Campus remembers oceanography professor, coastal expert

Dr. Christopher Kemp Sommerfield of Lewes, Delaware, professor of oceanography in the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, died on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. He was 55.

Dr. Sommerfield built his professional career at the University of Delaware, starting in 2000 after receiving his doctorate at the Stony Brook University and finishing a postdoctoral scholarship at the U.S. Geological Survey and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His expertise was focused on coastal geological processes on the continental shelf, and in estuaries and tidal wetlands, and he was keenly interested in the impacts of humans in estuaries and how these impacts address questions of ecosystem sustainability.

Christopher Sommerfield
Dr. Christopher Sommerfield in a 2012 photo

“On behalf of the entire CEOE community, I extend my deepest condolences to Dr. Sommerfield’s family. He was a highly valued colleague and friend of the faculty and staff of the University and will be profoundly missed,” said CEOE Dean Estella Atekwana.

"Chris’s contributions to our understanding of Delaware’s estuarine environment and coastal systems have been invaluable,” said Mark Moline, director of CEOE's School of Marine Science and Policy. “He was well known in the environmental science community throughout the state and the region for his expertise in tidal marsh stability, especially in the face of sea level rise. His contributions as a scientist, research partner, educator and mentor to many undergraduate and graduate students will solidify his legacy for decades to come."

Dr. Sommerfield’s work importantly looked at the natural processes governing the thickness of marsh soils and the ability of these environments to take up atmospheric carbon. His findings have been critical to the state of Delaware, where almost a quarter of the state is tidal wetlands and where global sea level rise is disproportionately impacting the Mid-Atlantic region. He recently coauthored an important report for the state of Delaware on planning scenarios for sea level rise.

A highly productive scientist, he was the author of 55 publications, and there have been more than 2,700 individual citations of his work. In recent recognition of his work, Dr. Sommerfield was the 2019 recipient of the Pritchard Award, which recognizes the author(s) of the best physical oceanography paper published in the respected journal Estuaries and Coasts within the past two years.

Dr. Sommerfield was an active member in five professional societies, contributed his knowledge at the federal, state and local levels of government, and actively served at all levels within the University of Delaware.

In addition to the lasting legacy of Dr. Sommerfield’s scientific research, perhaps his greatest professional contribution, and one that he would be most proud of, would be the hundreds of students he taught in the classroom and in the field, and the 15 graduate students he mentored. Although rigorous, he was thoughtful and caring, and he always earned the respect of his students.

A devoted son, father and husband, Dr. Sommerfield loved sharing his passion for the water through scuba diving and his love of guitar and music with his sons. His sense of honor and discipline to his work and family and his ability to see the good in everyone he met will forever serve as an inspiration to his children, family, friends and colleagues.

He was born Oct. 14, 1964, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the son of Beverly (DeCurtis) and the late Earle (Kip) Sommerfield. In addition to his father, he was preceded in death by his grandparents: Earle and Larue Sommerfield and Alfred and Elizabeth De Curtis.

Dr. Sommerfield is survived by his wife, Beth; his children, Davis, Richard and John; his mother, Beverly; his brother, Jeff (Christina); his sister, Jennifer; and many nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins.

A Celebration of Life will be held from noon-3 p.m., Saturday, March 21, at Barnaby's, 15 South High St., West Chester, Pennsylvania. Interment will be private.

Condolences may be left online.

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