Tag Archives: awards

NASA Scientist Wins Climate Communication Prize

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Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist based at NASA’s GoddardInstitute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, has received the inauguralClimate Communications Prize from the American Geophysical Union, the largestassociation of Earth and planetary scientists in the world. The $25,000 prizewill be awarded at the group’s fall meeting in San Francisco thisDecember.  

Despite the rancor that often surrounds public discussions ofclimate change science, Schmidt has become one of NASA’s most valued andrelentless scientific communicators. He is regularly quoted by leadingnewspaper and magazine journalists, frequently offers his time and expertise atpublic events, and has appeared on numerous television programs. In his sparetime, he write for the widely read blog RealClimate and has published abook about climate change.

Here are a few links to interviews we’ve done with Schmidt in the past about communicating climate science and the surface temperature record. Also, take a look at these recent video interviews produced by Columbia and NASA and a few of Schmidt’s memorable appearances on CNN, the Daily Show, Nova, and Martha Steward (see 9:50). Congratulations, Gavin. And thank you. 

Text by Adam Voiland.

Deep Thoughts on the Ocean and a Scientist's Responsibility

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Oceanographer Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was recently honored by the White House as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Willis studies the ocean — particularly the height of the sea surface — with satellite data, though he also works with colleagues who put instruments below the surface of the water. By blending such measurements, he has already made a scientific mark in the study of sea level rise. We caught up with Josh — shown below with White House science advisor John Holdren and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver — to discuss his inspiration, the importance of the ocean, and the necessity of communicating science.

WhatOnEarth: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? When did you decide you wanted to be an ocean scientist?

Josh Willis: When I was 9 or 10, I found a book about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity that my parents had lying around the house. I remember reading it and then peppering my parents with questions they couldn’t answer. (This was long before Google, mind you.) So for a long time, I wanted to be a physicist. A couple years of graduate school in physics convinced me otherwise, and I started studying oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Studying the ocean and climate appealed to me because I got to use all the physics and math I learned, but it was also closer to home and of practical importance to a lot of people. Plus, it’s just fun to say “oceanographer” whenever people ask me what I do.

WhatOnEarth: What is the best scientific paper you have written?

Willis: It’s tough to say. Sometimes the papers I think are important are different from the ones that other scientists remember best. But my papers on the causes of sea level rise — based on comparisons between satellite altimeter data, observations of ocean temperature changes, and changes in ocean mass measured by the GRACE satellite — were interesting and fun to write.

WhatOnEarth: What is the most important thing that few people know about the ocean?

Willis: The ocean is the silent martyr of global warming. We always think of global climate change in terms of the warming atmosphere, but it is actually the ocean that absorbs almost all of the extra heat and a whole lot of CO2. The warming contributes to sea level rise and changes ocean ecosystems, while the extra CO2 makes the ocean more acidic, threatening plankton and other tiny critters that make up the foundation of the oceanic food chain.

WhatOnEarth: Why do you feel compelled to talk to the public about your science?

Willis: Communicating our work is a really important part of doing science that most scientists sort of neglect. Figuring out new things about the world around us is only helpful if we communicate them to everyday people. Plus it’s fun and exciting to talk to non-scientists because the questions are often fun and interesting, and I come away feeling inspired and invigorated.

WhatOnEarth: What is the funniest or strangest question you’ve ever gotten?

Willis: I often get a chuckle out of the people who say that global warming is a vast conspiracy among scientists. Scientists love to prove each other wrong, and most of the time we can barely agree on simple questions like “why is the sky blue,” much less orchestrate a conspiracy.

WhatOnEarth: Is the PECASE award an affirmation or an inspiration for your career?

Willis: This is definitely a great honor and inspiration. When President Obama met with us, one of the first things he told us was how nice it was to honor a group of scientists still in the early stages of our careers. “All of you folks are younger than me!” he said. But he also made it clear that he expected a lot from us in the future. That’s a pretty big inspiration when the President tells you he’s expecting great things. And it’s a pretty big responsibility, too. I guess that means it’s probably time to get back to work now…

Mike Carlowicz, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

An Award-Winning Scientist Who Came in from the Cold

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NASA-funded researcher Ben Smith digs a snow pit at a West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide core
site to try to infer the annual rate of snowfall. Credit: Ben Smith

Researchers who study glaciers and polar dynamics often get into it for the love of the field work — the challenging terrain, technicological adventures, and thigh-deep snow.

Benjamin Smith, a researcher at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, was no exception. As a fledgling physicist in the 1990s, his first summer job after college turned into an eye-opening adventure — a 3-month stint at the Kamb Ice Stream in Antarctica as a field assistant mapping buried crevasses with snow-penetrating radar. The rest, as they say, was history.

These days, Smith is enjoying a rare honor as one of two NASA-supported researchers to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), awarded at a White House ceremony last month.

WhatOnEarth: Field work was your entry into studying glaciers. Are you involved  in Arctic or Antarctic field work now?

Smith: After a few years of field work, I discovered that though being out in cold is great, the quicker way to learn about glacier change is by doing remote sensing work. That requires a great deal of data analysis indoors. So with that notion, I got onboard as part of NASA’s ICESat I mission while working on my doctorate in physics.

WhatOnEarth: What work do you believe was the basis for your presidential award?

Smith: Well, I have a few projects that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in.

Not too long ago, I wrote a paper where we found that several lakes beneath the glaciers in Antarctica have gained or lost water in the last five years, and at a rate much faster than things usually happen in Antarctica. We’ve been seeing lakes that fill or drain in half a year. In one case, 3 cubic kilometers of water drained last year from one of these lakes. That’s about the size of Lake Washington in Seattle.

My main objective in all of this is to figure out where that water went and how it has affected other subglacial lakes and glaciers downstream. Have those glaciers sped up from the water flowing under them? The warmth of the surface bed beneath glaciers allows them to slide faster. If you add more water, there’s potential for glaciers to slide faster. 

I’m also part of a team that is helping to design the ICESat II satellite – a project we hope will build on the success of ICESat I. The satellite will boast several laser beams rather than one, so it’ll provide much better spatial coverage of the Earth’s surface to measure glacier mass and area.

President Obama honored PECASE awardees, including Ben Smith and Josh Willis, in January at the White House.
Credit: The White House

WhatOnEarth: Were you aware that you’d been nominated for the PECASE award?

Smith: No. I was completely unaware of it until I was notified by the FBI about a background check! I can tell you I was relieved when I found out the background check regarded my visit to the White House. I understand now that my nomination was put forward by colleagues at NASA. Somehow, my nomination came out on top of the pile, and that’s pretty cool.

To read a few of Ben Smith’s ICESat-related scientific papers, click the topics below.

Ice stream elevation changes observed by ICESat

Increased flow speed on an East Antarctic glacier

An inventory of subglacial lakes detected by ICESat

Gretchen Cook-Anderson, NASA’s Earth Science News Team