Peter Harlem Memorial Blog

Pete earned his Master of Science degree in Marine Geology from the University of Miami in 1979. His thesis, titled Aerial Photographic Interpretation of the Historical Changes in Northern Biscayne Bay, Florida: 1925 to 1976 was published as a University of Miami Sea Grant Technical Bulletin (No. #40). In that work, Pete established himself as an expert in the analysis of aerial photography to identify landscape changes at the land-water nexus.

Pete’s career at Florida International University began in 2000, where he worked in various capacities, most notably within the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC). Throughout his years at SERC, Pete was a core member of multiple research teams, collaborating on studies (many published in peer reviewed academic journals; many in government reports; many in white papers) that added to body of scientific literature on Florida’s estuarine and coastal ecosystems. Notably, Pete was the lead contributor on a major National Park Service’s 2012 Natural Resource Report Assessment of Natural Resource Conditions In and Adjacent to Biscayne National Park.

In addition to playing an indispensable role as an applied scientist and trusted colleague whose insights added value to projects, Pete also became, and remains, a beloved friend. For many of us, he is, and always will be, family.

For the last four years, Pete has served as a Coordinator at the University’s library-based GIS Center. While maintaining strong relationships with his colleagues in SERC and, more broadly, the College of Arts & Sciences, he began to redirect his efforts toward a subject for which few have any comparable level of knowledge: historical aerial photography and ecology. Pete also continued to advance methods for mapping sea level rise using high resolution LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) imagery. He was one of the first, if not the first, in the South Florida community to utilize these types of data, significantly improving the modeling of sea level rise impacts on South Florida’s social and environmental assets.

Pete’s highly circulated maps of sea level rise have appeared in venues as diverse as the floor of the United States House of Representatives, the digital pages of The Miami Herald, to various other local, national, and international outlets eager to present the most up-to-date, highest quality maps of the phenomenon available. In fact, the data derived from Pete’s inundation mapping efforts underpin the relatively new “Eyes on the Rise: Sea Level Rise in South Florida” application developed jointly with the FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the FIU GIS Center. Additionally, Pete has been interviewed by media outlets on over a dozen occasions on the matter of climate change and sea level rise, the proudest instance of which was for the famous 2015 Rolling Stone story: “Goodbye, Miami”. Lastly, his commitment to educating the public on climate change earned him an induction into the Cleo Institute’s leadership circle in late 2015, just a few months prior to his passing.

But Pete was far more than a scientific technocrat and climate change communicator. He developed a reputation among the thousands of students, faculty, and staff he regularly assisted as being one of the most generous with his time and knowledge, and as being one of the most sincerely interested in engaging in meaningful intellectual conversations on anything from climate change to the state of the American political system. People would come visit him just to chat with him and try to extract his respected opinions on any and every subject worth discussing. Pete was simply a great mind.

Prior to his three-and-a-half decade, community-impacting career as a scientist and academic, Pete was a soldier. He proudly served our country in the Vietnam War, and his time in the military helped develop his no-nonsense, yet laid-back, attitude toward work and life. Some of Pete’s librarian colleagues joke that, while Pete never attended librarian school, he’s more organized and has developed far more sophisticated cataloging/inventorying systems than the librarians themselves. These sorts of qualities permeate throughout all of Pete’s work, including his work in aerial photography classification, work that will serve FIU and the broader academic communities for decades to come.

Indeed, more than a scientist, Pete is a cataloger, collector, classifier, tinkerer, and detail-oriented perfectionist. His time serving the United States in Southeast Asia instilled in him a fascination for military technology and equipment. He is an award-winning competitor in building scaled helicopter, tank, and plane models (yes, award-winning!). In fact, Pete published the authoritative book on building the US Sherman gun tank: Modeler’s Guide to the Sherman: A Complete and Comprehensive Guide to Modelling the M4 Sherman in 1/35.

Over the decades following his time in the military, Pete has assembled one of the largest, as-of-yet unpublished collections of original Vietnam War photographs. He kept meticulous records (metadata) on his own photos, and those of the many fellow veterans who had their own collections. Recently, through the efforts of FIU Libraries, especially the FIU GIS and Digital Collections Centers, a new permanent collection – the Peter Harlem Vietnam War Photography Collection – of these invaluable historical photographs has been started. These photographs will serve the historical research community for decades to come. Such a collection would not have been possible without Pete’s foresight and unwavering desire to capture and preserve knowledge for future generations.

The truth, though, is that Pete’s accomplishments go far beyond the professional endeavors that can be reported in a letter or even in a comprehensive curriculum vitae. Pete enriched the life and spirit of our University and community. He embodied the very best kind of scientist there is: a human one, eager to make the world a better place. In that regard, Pete was exceedingly successful, for he not only made his world a better place, he made all of ours too.