Step 1: Minor in Theater. Step 2: Devise Science Experiment.

Josh Willis gives an impromptu science talk to 50 U.S. high school students who were also staying in Keflavik, Iceland. The students were in Iceland over their spring breaks on a trip focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Josh Willis gives an impromptu science talk to 50 U.S. high school students who were also staying in Keflavik, Iceland. The students were in Iceland over their spring breaks on a trip focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

Here’s the second part of our Q&A with Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) principal investigator Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, specializing in sea level rise. Josh is also a graduate of the improv program at Second City Hollywood Conservatory in Los Angeles. Here he describes how exercising his sense of humor improves his science.

In high school, I actually enjoyed physics and calculus, which was weird. So in college, that’s what I wound up doing. But just so I didn’t lose my humanity entirely I minored in theater, which is probably one of the best decisions I made in college. Since I’ve been in Los Angeles, I’ve taken improv classes at Second City Hollywood and continue to perform regularly with a group.

I’ve realized that I love talking about science. One of the most important things you learn in grad school is how to talk to other scientists, but it has a side effect of making you forget how to talk to everyone else. I spent 10 years learning how to talk to scientists and now I’ve had to spend 10 years unlearning that.

I think what I’ve learned from those classes and performing is important, and not just in explaining the science to people. There’s a certain amount of creativity that’s required to do innovative science. There are a lot of really big questions in climate science – like, how much will sea level rise? A certain amount of creativity is needed especially when you’re trying to propose a big project.

With OMG, we really set up a classic experiment. We are testing a hypothesis. We’re measuring the ocean, and we’re measuring the response of the glaciers. What we really want to be able to say is that we’ve measured X amount of warming and Y amount of ice melt, and we want to capture that all around the island for a period of five years. We have several different observational campaigns to try and crack this problem. And I think reawakening the creative part of my brain definitely helped cook that up.

Oceans Melting Greenland will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.

Glaciers by Sight, Glaciers by Radar

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Views from NASA’s G-III aircraft as it flew over the eastern coast of Greenland at about 40,000 feet on March 26 with the GLISTIN-A instrument aboard.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team is flying NASA’s G-III at about 40,000 feet. On a clear day, this altitude also provides a stunning perspective of one of the world’s two great ice sheets (the other is Antarctica). The flight Saturday, March 26, over the northeast coastline was one of those clear days.

“Today was spectacular – we had really good visibility,” said Josh Willis, OMG’s principal investigator. “It was a really dramatic landscape. Really beautiful and amazing to watch.”

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But the altitude wasn’t chosen for the 40,000-foot view. It was selected out of necessity to provide the exact position needed to map the height of glacier edges where they meet the ocean.

The OMG team is now just a few flights away from mapping glacier heights around the entire coast of Greenland. These measurements will form the baseline of this first-of-its-kind experiment, clarifying the picture of how Greenland’s glaciers are responding at a time when many signs point to accelerating change.

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“Four more flights and we will have mapped the coastline all the way around Greenland and captured almost every marine-terminating glacier here,” Willis said. “That’s the goal of OMG: to get the big picture of how the ice is disappearing, where it’s happening and why.”

OMG will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.