Gary Lagerloef, earth, space, and ocean researcher, answers questions
What work do you do?
I work at a small nonprofit scientific research institution named Earth & Space Research, where I have several key roles. I cofounded ESR in 1995, I am the current president, I serve on the board of directors, and I am a senior research scientist. The last role occupies most of my time, and is the most fun and rewarding. This is where I engage in scientific research related to ocean circulation and climate, with an emphasis on using modern data from satellites.
How does it relate to the environment?
ESR is fundamentally a science organization, and our principal research focus is oceanography. Our projects range geographically from the polar seas to the tropics, and address glaciers, ice dynamics, tides, El Niño, large-scale ocean circulation, ocean eddies, and small-scale turbulence and mixing, all of which reveal aspects of the nature of ocean dynamics and the ocean’s role in climate. We are exploring some of the most basic processes by which the world’s oceans and the climate interact, and this not only improves our scientific understanding of how the earth system works, but also improves the skill of climate-forecast models that tell us how things will be changing in the decades ahead. Our scientists share a common goal to promote public awareness about the scientific realities concerning the ocean and climate, and to communicate the important information beyond stodgy scientific journals by engaging in various educational and outreach activities with the public.
What are you working on at the moment?
My colleague Dr. Fabrice Bonjean and I, along with collaborators from other research institutions, are spearheading a scientific project to map ocean surface currents continuously worldwide with satellite data sets. This capability is the culmination of more than a decade of research. The data are now updated every week and are used to track climatic ocean circulation changes, study El Niño, aid commercial fisheries research, and numerous other applications.
Dr. Bonjean is now primarily in charge of this project, because I am now focusing on a major program called Aquarius. This is a new NASA Earth Science satellite mission, due to be launched in 2009, dedicated to studying how the global water cycle and ocean circulation interact to influence climate. I have the auspicious privilege and responsibility to lead this program for NASA as principal investigator, and have been working for more than 15 years toward the development of this particular type of satellite measurement.
About 85 percent of global evaporation is from the oceans, and about 78 percent of global precipitation falls from the atmosphere directly back onto the sea, so ocean-atmosphere interaction dominates the water cycle. As these patterns change with the seasons and year-to-year climate variations, ocean salinity also changes. Salinity influences seawater density, which influences ocean circulation, which changes the heat transport by the oceans, which influences the atmosphere, which causes changes in the water cycle, which alters salinity, in a never-ending interactive loop.
Aquarius will map variations in surface salinity over the entire ice-free ocean every seven days. The mission will last at least three years and fill a key measurement gap. Scientists have not been able to study these dynamics adequately because we lack the necessary comprehensive global, time varying, surface salinity measurements that can now be made from the unique vantage of an orbiting satellite. During the first 60 days of science measurements on orbit, Aquarius will collect more ocean-surface salinity measurements than all the prior ship and buoy observations in the history of oceanography.
Aquarius is being developed as a partnership between the United States and Argentina, and will have broad international scientific participation. For me, the most gratifying aspect of this work is to be intimately engaged at some vital region of the scientific frontier.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
After graduating with a major in oceanography, I was faced with the inevitable military draft and the Vietnam war. I joined the U.S. Coast Guard and landed an assignment as a marine science teacher at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for three years. During that time I also completed an oceanography master’s degree and became a scuba-diving enthusiast. After the Coast Guard, I went to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a seagoing officer. This led me to Seattle, where I joined the NOAA ship Surveyor and spent the next couple years involved with a variety of oceanographic and ecological studies in the North Pacific and Alaska waters. Later I was assigned to the NOAA marine lab in Seattle, getting my first taste of doing my own independent research.
I continued my graduate study for a Ph.D., bought a 35-foot sailboat (which we still own), met and married my wife, and our daughter was born. Ocean research cruises and long absences began to wear thin with a young family, so after our son was born, I left NOAA and found an oceanography job in the private sector. Later I spent two years at NASA managing the satellite ocean remote-sensing program. A few years after returning to Seattle, another colleague and I struggled with the obstacles of doing basic scientific research in the private sector, and this led to the founding of ESR. We structured ESR as a nonprofit to facilitate access to government research grants, and to create a supportive environment to do science. We now employ 12 people and carry out a variety of oceanographic and climate related studies.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born and grew up in southwestern Connecticut, near the shore of Long Island Sound. Now I reside on an island near Seattle. I have always lived close to salt water.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
It really riles me whenever sound scientific information is dismissed for expediency or narrow economic and political interests. The most glaring example is when President Bush rescinded the Kyoto treaty even though it had been signed by the U.S. (though not ratified by the Senate). Documented efforts by the Bush administration to squelch government scientists from presenting their conclusions rile me even more. The scientific debate and subsequent policy debates vitally depend on openness and verifiable information to serve the public interest.
Who is your environmental hero?
Scientists willing to speak out about their results in the face of a hostile political environment earn my admiration and respect. At the top of this list at present is climate scientist James Hansen, who about a year ago resisted efforts by political appointees in NASA to restrict his public discussions. Other notable climate experts who work diligently to educate policymakers and the public include Stephen Schneider and Richard Somerville. I also greatly admire former Vice President Al Gore for his undaunted and creative efforts to convey the message about climate change to the public.
What’s your environmental vice?
Recently I did one of those personal ecological footprint assessments. Given that I drive a hybrid car, bike to work, and live in a modestly sized energy-efficient house, I was scoring very well, until I got to the calculation for air travel. That really blew my score, because I travel extensively with my work, often internationally. I also like to travel abroad for vacations. You could call this a vice because I am reluctant to give it up, both professionally and personally.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
A philosopher once said, “The time you spend wasting is not wasted time.” Often I find that the best balance to the busy lifestyle I live is time for doing almost nothing. Just relaxing and enjoying the company of family and friends is essential. I also enjoy outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, and sailing. We try to get away on our sailboat for a couple weeks of cruising every summer.
A fascinating book I read recently is Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. I was amazed to learn how demand for this seemingly innocuous commodity has been a dominant factor throughout human history.
What’s your favorite meal?
I have a great recipe for barbecued salmon, and I particularly favor fresh Alaskan sockeye as the prime ingredient. Perhaps this is another environmental vice, if I consider the energy cost to ship the fish from Alaska to Seattle.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t give much credence to stereotyping. Everyone is unique. I am a scientist, and I believe I have a responsibility to convey environmentally relevant scientific information to the public. I also believe in the importance of being knowledgeable about the subject, and to present it in a way that people can comprehend.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
We truly enjoy the time we spend cruising on our sailboat in Puget Sound and British Columbia waters. Time slows down, the rhythm of our lives changes, and what begins to matter most is when the tide turns or how fresh the wind is. The smell of salt air is rejuvenating. We see seals, porpoises, orcas, and seabirds, and we can just stay put in some idyllic spot if we want to.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would initiate a stiff carbon tax on all fossil-fuel consumption and use the revenue to finance accelerated initiatives for research and development in energy alternatives and conservation. This will reverse the present imbalance of economic incentives and disincentives. It will cost consumers, but we who use fossil-fuel energy are all part of the problem and should share the cost of fixing it.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
At that age, it was Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. In the past year or so, I have rediscovered Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne, two quite different artists whose poetic lyrics I find to be very profound. I guess you can tell what generation I’m from.
What’s your favorite movie?
A favorite movie would have to be one that I don’t tire of watching over and over again. Add to that creativity, artistry, and wonder, and my vote goes to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Someone with the lines from a full life etched into his face, who conveys a sense of purpose, optimism, and possibility. How about Robert Redford?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Read the Physical Science Basis in the IPCC Fourth Assessment [PDF]. Learn about the science, talk it over with others, be obnoxious about it. Write to your elected representatives. It’s important.