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Larry Swanson, Stony Brook University oceanographer and environmental advocate, dies at 82

Larry Swanson, then the interim dean of the

Larry Swanson, then the interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, on the shore of Stony Brook Harbor in Stony Brook on Feb. 14, 2017.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Larry Swanson, a Stony Brook University oceanographer whose work spanned scientific disciplines and included managing seagoing research vessels, died October 17 of a heart attack in Head of the Harbor.

He was 82.

Swanson began his career at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the 1960s and headed that agency’s study of the waters off New York and New Jersey, his son, also named Larry Swanson, said. He was in charge on June 14, 1976 when, "the roof fell in," according to an agency publication: "Reports came in from all along Long Island’s shores … of an appalling mess of trash found along the high tide line" including plastic cups, grease balls and tar lumps, hygienic items and "numberless unidentifiable lumps of rubbish."

Authorities that year also responded to a massive fish kill and another major wash-up of litter. Under Swanson the agency’s study, known as the MESA New York Bight Project, helped identify the sources and consequences of dumping that contributed to all three crises. It also aided federal environmental officials in phasing out ocean dumping.

Swanson headed NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research in 1986 before Stony Brook hired him to head its Waste Reduction and Management Institute, the university said. The research and policy body was created by the New York State Legislature to confront issues surrounding Long Island’s waste generation — higher per capita than for residents in the rest of the United States and with more limited disposal options — along with associated threats to drinking water.

The Institute was housed in the university’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, where he served as associate dean until his death, overseeing facilities including the research vessel Seawolf and the Flax Pond Marine Lab.

Swanson was also a Head of the Harbor Village trustee, an unsalaried position, from 2002 to 2013, and deputy mayor from 2008 to 2013.

Robert Lawrence Swanson was born October 11, 1938 in Baltimore, the son of Hazel Swanson, a homemaker, and Lawrence "Mike" Swanson, a surveyor who worked for a federal agency that was a precursor to NOAA. He graduated from Lehigh University and earned his master’s and Ph.D. at Oregon State University.

Swanson wrote or edited dozens of scientific journals and textbooks covering topics such as coastal erosion and ocean acidification. He and a colleague, oceanographer Malcolm Bowman, wrote "Between Stony Brook Harbor Tides," a natural history of the water body where both men conducted scientific research; Swanson also harvested shellfish and took his boys canoeing there.

"One of the last conversations we had — he always thought it was great that he and I could go out on the canoe and pick mussels right off the dock or the pilings," his son, Larry Swanson said. "They were safe, they were clean."

Swanson also worked outside the academy, advising the Head of the Harbor and Suffolk County governments on environmental matters. At a Village Board meeting earlier this year he warned of the environmental threats posed by a development proposal for the nearby Gyrodyne property — claims that company representatives have rebutted.

In one of his last public appearances, a business group’s October webinar on Long Island’s looming waste disposal problems, much of the talk was about means of transporting waste. Swanson instead talked about recycling strategies he said could create jobs, benefit the environment and reduce garbage.

Swanson was an optimist, said Paul Shepson, SOMA dean. "My gosh, we’ve made great strides in cleaning up the environment, and I think Larry was really proud of his part of that."

Swanson is survived by his wife, the former Dana Lamont, of Head of the Harbor. Besides their son Larry, of Seattle, he is survived by their son Mike, who also lives in the village.

Swanson will be cremated and remembered in a small family gathering, Larry Swanson said; a memorial service was also planned for university colleagues and friends, though details were not yet available.

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