Jay Famiglietti from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tells Mike about taking the plunge into using the GRACE gravity-measuring satellites for hydrology research. Keep in mind, this was at a time when hydrology was viewed as noise in the gravity signal, and that Jay was just starting off as an academic with his first graduate student, Matt Rodell. But making this kind of leap — from surface hydrology in Jay’s case — is of course what so often leads to step changes in science. Over the past decade, Jay and his colleagues have revealed the shocking reductions in groundwater in many water stressed parts of the world, including India and the Central Valley. Although perhaps best known for his work with GRACE, Jay is also a noted modeler, and much of his current work focuses on an ambitious data assimilation approach for simulating the real time hydrological state of the western United States at high resolution. And now, Jay is taking another plunge, this time to the University of Saskatchewan, where he’s landed a huge position as Research Chair in Hydrology and Remote Sensing.
Music: SODAR by Scanglobe and Parallel Park by Ziggurat, both CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Normally my show notes are carefully reasoned, sober discussions of the remarkable pathways forged by inspirational scientists, and their subsequent breakthroughs. Not this time. This time, I will begin with a headline about today’s Forecast victim guest, Josh Willis, that might be suitable for The Onion:
Idiot leftist scientist thrown out of school, concludes that warm water melts ice
This is all true, from a certain point of view. Josh was called an idiot leftist scientist by Rush Limbaugh (a moniker enthusiastically adopted by Josh and, err, Josh’s wife), had to leave his PhD program in Physics, and is now leading the massive Oceans Melting Greenland program. But a more realistic telling is doubtless in order.
Josh grew up in Texas and completed a bachelor’s degree in Physics at the University of Houston. There, in the honors program, he met his future wife, a California native. The two soon relocated to SoCal, where Josh entered the PhD program in physics at the University of California San Diego and his wife attended medical school in Los Angeles.
Physics, however, was not to be Josh’s calling and he ultimately did not pass the departmental examinations. Although he came out with a master’s degree in physics, the experience was certainly a setback, and one that took Josh a year or two to get over.
Failure, as is so often the case, had an upside. Rather than inducing a downward spiral, the physics experience ultimately proved a huge relief for Josh, and one that led him to a vastly more fulfilling career studying oceanography at Scripps, where he worked with the great Dean Roemmich. There, Josh did some of the early work on coupling satellite altimetry with ocean observations to estimate ocean heat content.
The start of Josh’s PhD coincided almost exactly with one of the most important advances in oceanography, maybe ever: the Argo program. As Josh says
It was super exciting … it was also kind of scary … In retrospect it seems obvious, but at the time, it was almost crazy
The launch of the incredible Argo data stream created nearly new fields of inquiry, particularly into ocean heat content. But as is the case with any new data explosion, particularly when trying to bolt it onto older datasets, problems can emerge. Josh and his colleagues published a paper entitled “Recent cooling of the upper ocean“, but soon found out that the cooling was due to problems in both the earlier XBT data and software problems in a group of North Atlantic Argo floats. A correction soon followed. I completely view this as a positive, rather than negative, example of how climate science actually functions: scientists follow the data, and revise their conclusions based on new information.
Unfortunately, Josh figured out the error upon walking out the door for a Valentine’s day dinner with his wife. Dinner was a disaster, and
As retribution, my wife had business cards made that have my job title as idiot leftist scientist
Now Josh is pursuing one of the main topics in sea level research: the interactions between Greenland’s marine-terminating glaciers and the surrounding ocean. Prior work had revealed some of these interactions in particular fjords, but Josh and his colleagues are now conducting systematic radar surveys of all of Greenland’s outlet glaciers, combined with sensors parachuted into the fjords. The project — Oceans Melting Greenland — is in the data collection phase, and is part of a recent special issue in Oceanography. Once complete, we should have a much better idea of how and where ice-ocean interactions are strongest, and what the implications will be for sea level rise.
All images courtesy NASA, from https://omg.jpl.nasa.gov/.
Josh has a wicked sense of humor, even in the face of potential impending disaster for federally-funded climate science. Just check out Dick Dangerfield on the video section of the OMG Facebook page. I like episode 1 in particular.
I first heard of Piers Sellers some time in the mid-1990s, on a trip to the southern BOREAS field site when I was in my master’s program at the University of Montana. The talk was something on the order of “… have you heard? Piers is entering the astronaut program!” which, at the time, came as a complete non-sequitur to me. Why would someone at the peak of an influential scientific career at NASA choose to walk away?