Nicholas Fofonoff was born in 1929 and received a bachelor's degree in 1950 and a master's degree in physics and mathematics in 1951 from the University of British Columbia.
His affiliation with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began in 1952, when he came to WHOI as a summer fellow while a PhD candidate at Brown University. Fofonoff received his doctorate in 1955. After a postdoctoral year at the National Institute of Oceanography in England, Nick spent six years working in the Pacific Oceanographic Group at the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. He returned to WHOI in 1961 to attend the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics program and as a postdoctoral fellow, and was named to the scientific staff as a physical oceanographer in 1962. Fofonoff served as Chair of the Physical Oceanography Department twice, from 1967 to 1971 and again from 1981 to 1985. He retired from the Institution in 1991 but continued to conduct research.
During his tenure at WHOI Nick also held appointments at Harvard University. He was Professor of the Practice of Physical Oceanography at Harvard from 1968 to 1985, an Associate of the Center for Earth and Planetary Physics from 1971 to 1986, and a Distinguished Research Associate from 1985 to 1991.
Fofonoff's research interests included the dynamics of ocean circulation, physical properties and thermodynamics of seawater, and the application of buoy systems to measurements of ocean currents. During the 1980s he focused much of his work on the Gulf Stream and served on numerous national and international scientific committees, including the US Committee on Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) from 1969 to 1971, the North Pacific Experiment Scientific Advisory Panel from 1972 to 1973, and the Satellite Ocean Data System Science Working group from 1986 to 1989. He was a member of the organizing committee for the joint Russian/American POLYMODE experiment that took place between 1975 and 1981. He was also a member of the advisory panel for the Coastal Upwelling Ecosystems Analysis program of the International Decade of Ocean Exploration.
Fofonoff received many honors during his career, among them the Ocean Sciences Award from the American Geophysical Union in 1990 and the Henry Stommel Research Award from the American Meteorological Society in 1998.
This early career award is intended to recognize scientists who are within ten years of having earned their highest degree or are under 40 year of age when nominated. Consideration will also be given, however, to those who are still in the early stage of their careers but have seen these interrupted for up to 5-10 years by family leaves, military service, and the like.