Steve Running from the University of Montana helped to invent the field of large-area, quantitative ecology. Steve was also my MS and PhD advisor – a role that doubtless was the most fulfilling of his career. This August, Steve celebrates his retirement with a reunion of lab members and close colleagues — a reunion that I will unfortunately miss due to an extended overseas trip. In lieu of my corporeal presence, I am contributing this Forecast interview to the party. I hope that the attendees — and the broader Forecast audience — will enjoy the look back at Steve’s long career and many contributions to the now-accepted but then-fringe use of remote sensing and modeling to address some of the big questions in terrestrial ecology.
And to capture a bit of Steve’s great enthusiasm for having fun, here’s a short album from our trip to Wimbledon 2010 (by my wife, Stephanie Best, who also puts in an appearance during our breakfast at E. Pellicci — also a couple from Dennis Baldocchi). As Steve put it at the time, “When are you going to get a chance to do that again?”
Mike and Steve enjoying a Pimm’s
Strawberries at Wimbledon.
The three of us at E. Pellicci.
Steve and Dennis Baldocchi in Avignon.
Bev Law and Steve, at Bev’s induction as an AGU Fellow.
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?
Robin Bell and her colleagues found a volcano under the Antarctic Ice Sheet and water freezing onto the bottom of kms-thick ice. She championed the idea that glaciology needed instrumentation capable of observing the full ice sheet — from surface to base — all at the same time. To this end, she bolted ship-based gear on a small plane and … tried it out. And it worked! And continues to work, all in support of the massive question of trying to figure out how the ice sheets will behave in warming world, and what sea levels will be in the coming decades to centuries.