Earth System Science at
20 Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Washington, DC – 22 June 2009
Today is June 22, 2009. This oral history is being conducted with
Dr. Mark Abbott, who currently serves as dean and a professor at the
College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University
in Corvallis, Oregon. This interview is being conducted at the National
Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. as part of the Earth System
Science at 20 Oral History Project to gather experiences from those
who have been intimately involved in various efforts in the launch
and evolution of Earth System Science. The interviewer is Jennifer
Ross-Nazzal. Thank you so much for joining me this afternoon. I’d
like to begin by asking you how you got involved in your field of
field of expertise. I guess really started out as an undergraduate
at University of California Berkeley [California], where I was really
interested in combining my interest in the environment—so this
is in the 1970s Earth Day kind of stuff—with my abilities in
math. So I thought I’m going to do ecological modeling. Well,
there weren’t any undergraduate programs that did that, but
Berkeley had a really good ecology program through forestry and obviously
good math. I got into an undergraduate program that did that.
Graduate school, went to UC Davis [University of California, Davis,
California]. Again, wanted to continue and get a PhD in that kind
of program. Ended up working with a fellow named Tom [Thomas M.] Powell
at the University of California, Davis, who was in the ecology group.
But he was a high energy physicist by training and was studying Lake
Tahoe [Nevada]. He was bringing an oceanographic mindset to the study
of lakes, limnology, which had traditionally not been driven by that
oceanographic view. So it was very math-intensive. A lot of statistics.
Collecting data. Trying to understand the interaction between physical
processes and biological processes.
I did that as a graduate program and then went and did a NATO [North
Atlantic Treaty Organization]—back in the days when NATO had
postdoctoral fellowships that were administered through NSF [National
Science Foundation]—got a postdoctoral fellowship to work with
[Sr. research scientist] Ken [Kenneth L.] Denman up in Canada at the
Institute of Ocean Sciences [Sidney, British Columbia], which was
a Canadian federal government lab. He had been doing the same sort
or work, looking at really what’s known as spectral analyses,
analyzing the patterns of variance in phytoplankton, and trying to
compare that with the physical dynamics in the ocean. So I worked
with him. While I was there, I went to a meeting at the University
of Southern California [Los Angeles, California]. It was the final
meeting for a large international program called Coastal Upwelling
Ecosystems Analysis, CUEA, and this had been a large international
program studying upwelling ecosystems in the ocean off Oregon, off
Peru, and off northwest Africa. I went to the meeting.
Why Powell let me go I don’t know. But he did. While I was there—this
is a long story—there was a guy named Larry [Laurence C.] Breaker,
who was giving a poster. He worked at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration]. He had a poster of AVHRR [Advanced Very High Resolution
Radiometer] imagery of the California current. So he was looking at
sea surface temperature patterns. They were seeing these large plumes
going 200, 300 kilometers offshore. He was working with a guy named
Gene Traganza at the Naval Postgraduate School [Monterey, California].
So I was looking at this poster and thought gee, that’s really
interesting, looking at the satellite stuff.
But I was also interested that in his image there was Lake Tahoe,
which was where I had done some both postdoctoral work and doctoral
work. You could see temperature fronts in Lake Tahoe from space. So
I told this to Powell. We got excited about it. We wrote a proposal
to NASA to a guy named Ken [Kendall L.] Carder and Stan Wilson, who
was managing the oceans program. They funded it. That was my first
inquiry into using remote sensing to study something aquatic. Of course,
it was lakes at that time.
That then continued on to applying for a position that was a joint
position between Scripps Institution of Oceanography [La Jolla, California]
and the Jet Propulsion Lab [JPL, Pasadena, California]. So Stan Wilson,
who was at NASA Headquarters [Washington, D.C.], and Mous [Moustafa]
Chahine, who was at Jet Propulsion Lab, were really interested in
moving forward the field of satellite oceanography. One of the ways
Stan thought to do it was to get people that would have joint positions
between an oceanographic institution and a remote sensing institution,
i.e., JPL. Mous Chahine was really interested in supporting that,
so they advertised for positions. Well, after a long circuitous path
I was hired as the biologist. Because I had oceanographic interest,
I would work at Scripps, and I spent half my time up at JPL and acted
as that transfer point. That’s how I got into the field of satellite
remote sensing. So it’s a long story, but it really starts with
trying to understand what is the physical-biological coupling and
just using different tools, and satellites became the tool at that
Where were you when you heard about this new field of Earth System
had this joint position. I started that in 1982. [In] 1983, I got
a call from my program manager at NASA Headquarters, who at that time
was Wayne [ E.] Esaias, who then went on to [NASA] Goddard [Space
Flight Center, Greenbelt Maryland]. Wayne worked for Stan. He said,
“There’s this project called System Z, and we need somebody
to be on the science and mission requirements working group.”
System Z became EOS [NASA Earth Observing System]. So right at the
same time, in parallel, that’s when the [VAMOS-EPIC] Bretherton
Report came out, in ’84, ’85. So that whole thinking was
starting in the early 1980s.
What were some of your expectations for the field when you got initially
involved at this point?
an ecologist you really saw the need for a really comprehensive set
of data: physics, chemistry, and biology. Getting into oceanography
you saw the interest for long time series, to look at these, because
the ocean operates on these interannual to decadal time scales. I
saw that what was going to come out from Earth System Science was
really, a much more comprehensive observing system, and something
that would be in place for a long time. Essentially indefinitely.
I think when all of us younger folks started with EOS back then, that’s
what we saw happening. We assumed that that would be the partnership
that would happen, but that the technology and the science would evolve
over time. But we also saw, and I think it came out of Rick Anthes’s
[President, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research] talk
today, the imperative to do it, that it was important to begin to
understand how the planet operated as a planet, not just as an object
of scientific curiosity but as one of societal importance.
I thought that was very interesting. What sort of projects were you
working on at Scripps and JPL as you were working on this?
you just heard the talk. I was one of the first people to have access
to the Coastal Zone Color Scanner data and the algorithms to process
it. The best algorithms at that time in 1982 were at the University
of Miami [Florida]. We worked out a project with colleagues there,
Howard [R.] Gordon and Otis [B.] Brown, Bob [Robert] Evans at Miami,
to basically set up a processing system at JPL that would take all
of the west coast data, temperature and ocean color, and process it
with the best algorithms and collocate so you could see the temperature
patterns. Right back to Larry Breaker. You would see these upwelling
filaments and plumes and then look at the biological response. We
produced what was known as and funded by NASA, the West Coast Time
Series, which was a predecessor to what eventually the Goddard team
did on a global scale. We looked at it on a regional scale because
Scripps at the time had a satellite remote sensing facility. They
were collecting data. So we didn’t have to go through any archive
or any other separate satellite system. We had all of the data on
the west coast, which was not true until the Goddard Ocean Color team
really got into place in like 1986. The data lived elsewhere, and
it was all fragmented. But we didn’t have that problem, so we
could get all the data. So we test-drove a lot of the ideas and concepts
that eventually the Goddard people did and applied globally and took
it much farther along.
Can you share some more detail about those algorithms and some of
the other techniques you used to come up with this?
I think the first thing was when you’re measuring ocean color
most of the signal is coming from the atmosphere. It’s not what
you want. So you had to have the best atmosphere processing algorithms
to correct, to really get what was the signal of interest that’s
coming from the ocean. The second problem was understanding how the
sensor performance declined over time. Sensors always get worse; they
just get less and less sensitive. That was really what the people
at Miami worked on the most, was really understanding how to correct
for the atmosphere and then, two, how was the sensor changing over
time. Back in those days that took a lot of computer power. You could
probably do it on your cell phone now. There weren’t very many
groups that had access to those algorithms. Then the next part was
how do you map it and project it and sample and all that kind of stuff.
But that was easy. The harder part was really understanding the atmosphere
correction and then the calibration performance side.
How long did this project take?
we must have started it in 1983. I left there in 1988. I guess it
took about three years to process the entire CZCS [Costal Zone Color
Scanner] set, which was 1978 to I want to say 1984, 1986? I guess
1986. [In] 1984 it began to start to fail. I can’t even remember
when CZCS died now. That shows how old I’m getting.
What were the major findings of that?
think the first thing was just to see you could do a lot of comparing
wind forcing with the ocean color patterns and the sea surface temperature
patterns. So the first thing was really to look at what were the dynamics
of these large plumes that came off the coast. Was it just being driven
by local winds? Was it something larger? I think the biggest finding
on that was there was actually the fact that the winds are weaker
near shore and get stronger as you move offshore. You have stronger
winds offshore. This in some sense acted like a pump. As you can imagine,
no different than a normal pump, you have something weak pushing something
inside and something strong on the outside. That gives what’s
known as a torque to the system. That helped to pull those plumes
Other people were looking at seasonality patterns of those. I think
it stopped when SeaWiFS [Sea-viewing Wide-Field of view Sensor] went
up and the Goddard team picked that up and people started looking
more at global scale stuff, but it really was a pathfinder dataset.
What do you think are the key elements in relationship to the current
direction for Earth System Science?
current direction, okay. I think the first big—and it’s
not necessarily a great decision, but it’s when NOAA pulled
out. NOAA had been an active partner. I think that that broke that
tenuous bridge between research and operations. I think that was the
first one. I think the second big decision was not to fly copies of
the first EOS platforms, to go with the whole distributed set. Now
there were some advantages to doing that in that it opened it up.
But because in parallel you didn’t have an operational home
for the first set of NASA sensors, it meant you had a disjointed and
potentially short-lived time series. I think we’ve certainly
seen that today. That’s been repeated; we’re beginning
to get these 10- and 20-year what’s going to happen next.
Those are two negative things. I think the positive one was really
the formation of an integrated set of platforms, not making the disciplines
go alone, and really getting people to think systematically about
the Earth as a system, not just my favorite data variable or my favorite
sensor. I think that was important. I think another one that was also
important, and we’ve lost a little bit, is the whole Global
Change Research Program. That is that the satellite observing was
embedded in a larger set of scientific missions, understanding the
ocean carbon cycle, understanding ocean circulation. I’m thinking
of the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, (WOCE), JGOFS, (Joint Global
Ocean Flux Study). Similar ones on the atmosphere side or the terrestrial
side. So that satellites were not only interdisciplinary, they were
embedded in a larger universe of scientific programs that included
ground-based measurements, modeling, etc.
I think that was really important to the community at the time to
have that. So the interdisciplinary, by multiple missions, the embedding.
Then I think we missed on the long time series side. That’s
gotten us to where we are today.
What about events that you think have shaped our current direction?
Can you give me a hint? What kind of event?
Oh. Things like NASA administrators, new NASA administrators, or presidential
administrations, 9/11 [September 11, 2001], something like that.
events, events. Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin faster, better, cheaper, breaking
apart the platforms. That was a huge event, and an unfortunate event,
Why would you say that?
I think again it broke the time series. There’s no home for
MODIS [Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer] right now. MODIS
was supposed to go to VIIRS [Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite].
That didn’t happen. I think if you look at a lot of the platforms
and the measurement sets that were supposed to be continued, that
became much harder to continue.
Other big events. I think IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change], just the nature of the IPCC assessments. That’s a series
of events, but its formation really brought the assessment process
into a much more mainstream regular part. I think it’s hard
to keep the effort up. It tends to become assessment for assessment’s
sake. But it does capture people’s attention both in the public
and the political sectors as well as in the scientific community.
I think that that’s really kept Earth systems in the fore.
I should be able to think of more than that. But those are the ones
that come to mind.
The big ones. Are there any major elements that you see today in terms
of Earth System Science that have shaped its current direction?
elements. I think we still haven’t gotten the commitment to
a long term observing system. That’s just not there. What we’ve
got is a NOAA operational mission that really is focused on a permanent
presence in space to meet short term forecasting needs, which is fine
and good. You’ve got NASA, which is a research agency and really
can’t afford to commit forever. It wants to do new things. It’s
a science agency. So the two of those have not come to an agreement
yet, in part because the nation hasn’t come to an agreement.
The federal government hasn’t decided how to do that. Repeat
that question for me again. I had another idea.
Are there any key elements you think that have shaped the current
elements. So that’s one because I think we’re trying to
recreate that long observing system. The other one is maybe a little
bit different than what some of my science colleagues would like to
hear, maybe it’s because I’ve been a dean too long. I
think we started in the early 1980s as—it was an interesting
science question. We thought yes, it’s important to people.
I think IPCC has shown and the talks today have demonstrated again
this is really important. We need to understand. What I think we as
an Earth System Science community have not done well is help people
to understand how they can respond to it. I think there’s a
bit of a disconnect between the science supply and the science demand.
That is the kind of questions.
So we get into these arguments with skeptics, non-skeptics, to me
that’s not the argument. That is not why people are skeptical
about climate change. They are skeptical about the policies that people
want to impose or implement to address that problem. That’s
where the disagreement is. So in my state of Oregon, our legislature
meets every two years. Last legislature had very aggressive renewable
portfolio standards and almost like Kyoto [Protocol, International
Environmental Treaty] on a state level. This legislature, with an
unemployment rate of 12.4 percent that has died. Why has it died?
It’s died because of economics.
We’re seeing this in the European Union. We’re seeing
it in the Congress as well, that we as scientists have presented this
in some sense doom and gloom. People say, “Well, even if I believe
it, what can I do about it?” So that’s the second question.
Then the next question they ask is, “Well, what you’re
asking me to do is kill my economy.” They’re not going
to do that. We can’t ask the Chinese and the Indians to say,
“Guess what? You don’t get to have electricity because
you’re going to change the climate.” What we haven’t
done is really work on a regional scale and with people having to
make economic and political decisions to see that you can have it
both ways. I think that that’s where we haven’t really
worked well with the technology community that’s going to come
up with carbon free energy sources and new ways to store wind energy
and solar energy to get around their inherent problems with fluctuating
How do you decarbonize the economy without killing it? One way is
to kill the economy. But that’s not going to happen. We’ve
already seen, even on a state that’s very green, let alone the
US Congress. That’s not going to happen. We in the Earth System
Science community have still left it as a science question. Here’s
this great science. Go do something. That doesn’t help me, if
I’m an owner of a small business or an owner of a utility or
a state legislator. I think our inability to really encompass the
human dimension and really understand the human dimension as more
than what are people doing, flip that question around to say, “What
could people do?” We just didn’t do that.
What do you think that people can do?
think ultimately it’s going to be technological solutions. It’s
going to be technological breakthroughs. I think that there are incentives
we as governments can provide to let people explore all new things.
I think we tend to try and say that there’s a single answer.
We still tend to think, “Okay, you got me this problem, now
where’s that silver bullet?” There’s no silver bullet.
We haven’t communicated that this is a long term problem, that
it’s something you’re going to have to try all sorts of
things, from energy conservation to new energy sources to heaven forbid
probably even nuclear power to try and get us through what’s
really a 100 to 200-year problem. I don’t think we’ve
made that message really understandable or something other than just
it’s either hopeless or totally threatening, and the net result
of both of those is you end up doing nothing. I don’t think
we’ve done a really good job of communicating that.
I saw when we pulled some records that you’re working with the
state of Oregon and looking at oceans. There’s some sort of
agreement that’s been made between [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger
[California], your governor [Theodore “Ted” R. Kulongoski]
and the state of Washington [Governor Christine Gregoire].
there’s the West Coast Governors’ Alliance on Oceans.
Again, that’s another one where as the state budgets of all
three of those states have gone south, there’s not much going
on on that. But clearly Earth System Science, unlike its space science
kinfolk, people really care about the Earth and what it does. There’s
a lot of economic and political and social values associated with
it that you don’t have when you launch a mission to Neptune.
We’re fundamental science and applied science. I think we as
Earth system scientists have been in some sense naive in how the real
world works. Sometimes a little arrogant in how the real world works.
I think for example, one of the questions that we get asked a lot
among—I co-chaired the Climate Change Integration Group [CCIG]
for the governor, which has now been succeeded by something enshrined
in the legislature called the Oregon Global Warming Commission. CCIG
was business and political people and some scientists. I’ve
used this story before, but I’ll use it again. There was a guy
on that group, I won’t give his name, but he was a Portland
[Oregon] Metro councilor. The Portland area has a metropolitan governance
as well as city. There’s three counties around the Portland
area. He was talking one day. He said, “Here’s my climate
change question. I want to know how hurricane frequency and intensity
is going to change on the Gulf Coast.”
I actually had faculty who study that in my college, lots of people
are looking at that trying to predict how global warming will affect
that. He said, “But I don’t want to stop there. I want
to know how that’s going to impact outward migration from the
Gulf Coast, how many of those people will end up in the Portland Metro
area, what are going to be their socioeconomic needs, and how do I
build infrastructure to accommodate them in a carbon-neutral way.”
It was an end-to-end problem, which meant fundamental Earth System
Science: how are hurricane frequencies going to change in a warmer
planet—NASA funds that kind of work—to demographics to
socioeconomics to thinking about public planning and infrastructure.
He said, “Do I build highways here? How do I manage jobs? I
can say, ‘Everybody has to live in the city and not commute,’
but that housing is going to be too expensive for a lot of these poor
people moving from the Gulf Coast. What do I do?”
This is where the science community has not done the right kind of
modeling. So we often hear we need better models, more models, higher
resolution models. Some sense we miss the linkage with economics and
with people: what people want, what that planner wants. He said, “Don’t
give me the answer, give me the plausible scenarios. Then I can understand
where my risks are and I can build accordingly.” An insurance
company doesn’t need to know an electrical fire is going to
happen on June 24, 2042. It’s looking at statistics, and it’s
looking at plausible scenarios, and it’s managing its risk.
That’s what most business and government people want to do,
even though they may not know that. We haven’t come together
to align that demand for information and knowledge with what we can
produce. So we’re still disconnected and we’re still arguing
skeptic nonskeptic, and that’s really not the argument. That’s
a smokescreen for what really the fundamental argument is. What do
I do and how do I preserve my way of life and let other people advance
One more story. I’m on the National Science Board, which is
the governing board for the NSF. We had a task force on sustainable
energy. We met out at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden,
Colorado, because one of our board members is the director of that
lab. We had a fellow come from the University of Colorado [Boulder,
Colorado], and he was talking about the university’s involvement
in sustainability and reducing energy use. He said, “The students
are doing even more. Here’s a poster they produced.” It
was a poster of a person turning on a light switch, and next to that
person was a polar bear in an electric chair. So next time you turn
on the light switch you’re—you can see the link.
The next speaker got up and said, “It shouldn’t be the
polar bear sitting in the electric chair, it really should be that
kid in Africa who’s going to die of diarrhea because she had
contaminated water because it didn’t have an electric water
pump to bring up clean water or any way to clean it.” That’s
the disconnect. We in the west tend to think things are fine. We’ve
not connected with people and their aspirations I think. It’s
a rambling story.
No, I think it’s interesting, because you’re suggesting
ways that you might move forward in the future.
yes. I think if there was one other event in Earth System Science,
it didn’t get the human dimension. Probably because it was such
a cultural gap between social science and physical science. They tried.
The latest IPCC assessment tried to get in adaptation. That’s
really what people are asking for now, is how do I adapt. We’re
still focusing on the mitigation side intensely. Climate change is
going to happen.
Just shifting gears a little bit, are there any decisions that you
made that have impacted the current direction of Earth System Science?
made sure there was a fluorescence band on MODIS. I guess I could
say that was one thing. I don’t know. I think I was a young
assistant professor when that all started. I think that there were
a lot of folks. People like Dixon [M. Butler] and Shelby [G. Tilford]
and Stan. They were the ones who were making the frontline decisions.
But there were a lot of us down in the trenches. It was a generation
that really bought into that vision. Mark [R.] Schoeberl and I always
joke that we were known as the evil twins because we were always confused
as to which Mark was which, because we both had mustaches at the time.
We’d sit next to each other and confuse the project scientist.
He would always call one of us the other’s name. There was a
whole cadre of young scientists who came in and really bought into
that vision, that interdisciplinary vision, that integrated view of
the Earth as a system. So I think it was a collective decision, not
just a bunch of individuals.
Even with your involvement in Mission to Planet Earth, you were the
chief scientist there.
That’s what my research [indicates].
okay. No. Yet another long sad story. That all got announced. I was
going to go back and work with Charlie [Charles F.] Kennel. The lawyers
stepped in, because I still had an active research program at OSU
[Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon].
I was going to ask you how did that work.
didn’t. I stayed at OSU, yes.
What do you think are some of the greatest accomplishments that you’ve
seen over these past 20 years?
greatest accomplishments. There are an awful lot. I think you saw
a lot of them today. I think you’ll see some more tomorrow.
The whole ocean circulation from ocean altimetry has just revolutionized
our understanding of ocean circulation, ocean color, the basin scale
changes, the hints of looking at fluorescence to understand phytoplankton
physiology. I’m sure if you could talk to an atmospheric science
or a land person, it’s the time series that are the biggest
ones, the biggest change or had the biggest impact.
The second is in some sense what Waleed [Abdalati] and others were
talking about. It really opened up new windows to see new processes,
like the polynya in the Weddell Sea, the change in the sea ice in
the Arctic, all these things that we never could have seen any other
way. [James A.] Yoder’s talk about productivity. So it’s
hard to pick out one specific thing. I think if I was to just step
back and say, “Okay, you’re a biological oceanographer,
what’s the biggest thing?” I would say it’s the
mesoscale ocean eddies and their impacts on ocean biology. So those
are the 20-to-200-kilometer scale circulation features and how that
drives ocean ecosystems because of the way they upwell and downwell
nutrients, supply nutrients into the lighted zone.
There are tons of others, but those are the ones I’ll just say
Do you think there were any major missed opportunities?
opportunities. Other than the programmatic one of not linking up with
NOAA in an effective way, I think that is a real missed opportunity.
In terms of measurements, did anything get left behind? The synthetic
aperture radar people would say they got left behind. I would say
the high resolution hyperspectral folks would say they got left behind.
But at the time, they were so expensive. Nowadays we’d look
at them and say those were small missions, but those were unfortunate
decisions. Were they really critical? I think that they were good
decisions at the time, and they still probably, if I had to make them
now under the same constraints that NASA faced, I would make them
again. I would not make many friends at JPL, because those were JPL
But I think that the other one I guess that I would say was a missed
opportunity, there was a sensor called MODIS-T. It was the tilting
MODIS. That was one that also got left on the cutting room floor.
Budget squeeze, I think, to meet Dan Goldin’s budget constraints.
That was unfortunate, because MODIS, when it was known as MODIS-N,
[MODIS-Nadir], so the two MODIS that are up there permanently looking
straight down, MODIS-T was supposed to tilt to avoid glint. It would
have been a much, much more capable sensor, not that MODIS is bad.
MODIS is very good. It’s as good as SeaWiFS. MODIS-T would have
been that one up above the curve. That was a missed opportunity I
Are there any challenges that you’ve encountered working with
other scientists in different fields?
do you mean?
Are there obstacles or things you’ve had to overcome as you
worked with them?
I think if you look at ocean and atmospheric remote sensing, those
two communities get along really well. They have very similar sorts
of mindsets. It’s very global. It’s very process-driven,
trying to understand dynamics in a certain area—what’s
causing the ozone hole, that kind of thing, what’s causing ocean
When you dealt with the land remote sensing community, it tended to
come out of the Landsat world. It’s very place-oriented. This
particular patch of ground kind of thing. It tended to focus on place,
not process as much. That’s changed a lot in the last 10 years.
But boy, when EOS was getting started, it was hard. They really fought
for the high resolution, “I need that 10-meter resolution.”
We say, “Globally, do you?” Back in those days that was
a lot of data. Now it will fit on a single little chip.
NASA was going to collect a terabyte a day. That was a lot. I can
buy that for $100 and put it on my desk, but 20 years ago that was
a lot of data. There was a real mindset difference. There was a lot
of conflict in the early days of EOS in trying to formulate those
missions, because ocean and atmosphere people tended not to be tied
to—in mathematical parlance, they worked in wavenumber space,
they worked on spatial scales. Whereas land people tended to work
in Cartesian, XY, give me the coordinates, because I’m looking
at that patch of ground and that process. I think a lot of that came
because the Landsat world really grew out of the defense community
photogrammetry, the airborne remote sensing, which became satellite
remote sensing for looking for things, looking for objects. Where
are the Russians parking those bombers? The Discoverer Program, which
became known as the keystone satellite series, the first airborne
photography, was started by President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower because
of a purported bomber gap. So they needed photographs.
It’s interesting. I’m going to actually tell a personal
story on this one. Because my father was involved in that through
Lockheed [Aircraft Corporation] in the late 1950s. He came up to work
at Lockheed Sunnyvale [California]. On that team to build that was
a forest ecologist named Bob [Robert N.] Colwell from Berkeley who
had clearance at [Ernest Orlando] Lawrence Berkeley [National] Lab
[Laboratory, Berkeley, California] because he was on the team to help
them understand what was fake forest and what was real forest, because
they figured the Russians, the Soviets at the time, were disguising
their missile bases this way.
My only remote sensing course I took ever was at Berkeley from Dr.
Colwell. He would talk about measuring tree height from shadows from
airborne photography. He said, “And oh, by the way, there’s
this new satellite called ERTS,” [Earth Resources Technology
Satellite] it was a predecessor to Landsat. So in some sense that
community grew out of that mindset of looking for particular things
in particular places. So it was hard to get, as we called them, the
landers to think globally and to think global carbon cycle and to
think global processes.
On the other hand, they really thought ecologically as well. So there
was eventually I think a really nice marriage in understanding ecosystem
impacts and responses to biogeochemical cycles. We tended to think
cycles, heat cycles and heat budgets and carbon cycles. They tended
to think species and place. There was a lot of gear grinding to get
those communities to see that those were complementary ways, not one
better than another. That was a challenge for a long time.
Sounds like it. Can you categorize how Earth System Science has changed
over the years in terms of who was President at that point?
was President at that point?
Did it have much impact or really not much?
Butler used to tell me we always fared better under a Republican administration
because they wanted science to provide them cover from having to do
anything. I don’t know if that was true or not. I think in some
sense we did do better under [President George H.W.] Bush 41 than
we did under [President William J.] Clinton, because the Clinton Administration
really got into—this is a perception—Space Station as
a way to keep underemployed ex-Soviet scientists from going and sharing
their brains with other less friendly countries. It’s really
ironic, when you think of Vice President [Albert A. “Al”]
Gore at that time. But we did not fare that well, budgetarily, as
well as we had under the previous administration.
Under the [President George W.] Bush Administration, by that time,
everything had gotten set. We can say, “Well, was it because
of Kyoto or not?” I think again with NASA it was always as much
a problem internal to NASA as who was President. I think Bill Fred
[William F.] Townsend—we called him Bill Fred—Bill Townsend
put it the right way. When you had a series of administrators who
did not understand why NASA did Earth science, NASA itself has never
figured out what its role is in Earth science. It’s all over
the map. It’s something we do. It’s something we don’t
do. We do space. We do manned program. I think as NASA has gotten
older, it’s still struggling with trying to figure out what’s
Then on the other hand you have NOAA, which has always been deeply
underfunded, and has regulatory responsibilities as well as science
responsibilities. So the nation’s Earth remote sensing strategy
has been catch-as-catch-can. You have DoD [Department of Defense]
that has its things it needs to do, and you have NOAA that has its
things it needs to do. Then you have NASA.
The presidential decision directive creating NPOESS [National Polar-orbiting
Operating Environmental Satellite System] was probably another big
thing in the life of Earth System Science.
What was that?
was Clinton, and that was saying, “Why do we have two meteorological
satellite series, DMSP [Defense Meteorological Satellites Program]
and POES [Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite]?”
The POES series, the NOAA-6 through whatever they’re up to now,
16, so the pre-NPOESS. When the President created that, it did two
things. One, it said weather forecasting is dominant for the nation’s
Earth remote sensing needs. The second thing it did was it made NASA
a junior partner in that triumvirate. So NASA played a very limited
role. NASA couldn’t take its science requirements for long term
observing systems that it was beginning to formulate that had started
with EOS and was beginning to refine with lessons learned from EOS
and infuse them within the design and development of NPOESS.
DoD said, “Hey, we only care about the weather.” NOAA
largely said, “We only care about the weather,” although
they had some weak voices in there arguing for climate. Therefore
when NASA comes in and says, “We want climate,” nobody
listened. In fact, DoD hardly even listened to NOAA. In fact, NOAA
hardly even listened to NOAA in terms of its climate needs.
So that was a singular event. I should have mentioned that earlier.
I can’t remember the number of the PDD [Presidential Decision
Directive/NSTC-2, May 5, 1994], but it was one that if we all were
to look back on it, it’s one we would undo.
We heard a lot today about Dan Goldin as [NASA] Administrator. Can
you characterize Earth System Science under other administrators?
Dick [Richard H.] Truly? Sean O’Keefe? Mike [Michael D.] Griffin?
Any significant changes?
think under Truly and [James M.] Beggs it did pretty well. It did
okay. It certainly got its new start. I think O’Keefe, he was
doing what the President said, and it was to save money; he was a
budget guy. I think Mike Griffin just does not understand why NASA
does it, period. O’Keefe comes out of it from an OMB [Office
of Management and Budget] budget side and saw it as a dilution of
budgetary effort. I think Griffin just didn’t see any value.
It should be a NOAA thing, why is this even at NASA? Oceanography?
I thought there was something called National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, right? So I think that Mike, it just confused him.
I think that’s actually a reflection of NASA internally too.
The NASA Centers haven’t quite figured quite where it belongs.
It’s hard because manned missions are viewed as the lifeblood.
They’re expensive. Shuttle and [International Space] Station
really drew far more resources than any of us ever expected they would
draw. Then you have the space science missions and the telescopes,
and those are all wondrous successes, but they’re getting more
and more expensive. Then you have Earth, but you say, “Why are
we even doing Earth? We’ve got these other two problem children.
I don’t need a third.” I think NASA itself has not come
up and the nation really hasn’t come up with what’s its
role in the context of Earth science. It’s really something
somebody’s got to come in with a vision and really push on it.
I don’t know. We’ll see what happens in the next four
You did mention Al Gore a few minutes ago. Do you think that his movie
[An Inconvenient Truth] and book [An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary
Emergency of Global Warming] had any sort of impact on Congress and
the White House and the American public and their understanding of
think he certainly created a lot of press for it. I think he’s
created awareness, and I think that’s a good thing. I think
sometimes I don’t agree with his approach on how to answer the
questions. But I think the good thing that he’s done is raised
awareness of the Earth as a system. He’s certainly done that.
The movie and the books have done that.
Do you think it’s had any sort of impact at all on Earth System
in that people are aware. I think when we started Earth System Science
20 years, 25 years ago really, it was pretty much locked up in academia.
I think now you can talk to people and they actually know some of
the stuff that’s going on. They still confuse ozone hole with
global warming. But 25 years ago, most people didn’t even know.
So that’s a good thing.
Does Earth System Science have an international aspect the way Space
Station and some of NASA’s other programs do? Or is this primarily
a US-led [activity]?
I think in places there have been some real stellar successes. Between
France and Japan for example. Been absolute wonderful bilateral international
partnerships. Between NASA and CNES [Centre National d’Etudies]
and NASDA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency], which is now [JAXA],
and NASA. You saw some of that today. So TOPEX/Poseidon [Ocean Topography
Experiment] the whole scatterometry, ocean color, there’ve been
really fabulous relationships between those two countries or those
organizations and the United States.
ESA [European Space Agency] is a little more difficult because it’s
a much more complicated organization to deal with, in the sense that
you’ve got a ministerial level, and it’s just harder for
us to go in and deal with. The other nations, certainly the Argentineans
for example, there’s a joint mission NASA Argentina that’s
going up. So there’ve been a lot of good bilateral relations.
In terms of GEO, the Global Earth Observing one, it’s a mixed
bag, because it’s hard. You got to remember each nation has
its own interest. Some are trying to develop their own spacefaring
capability. The Chinese being a classic example. Others are very protective.
The Indians are another example. Others are much more in the community
of science and are much more willing to come in and share and partner.
So once you recognize that everybody has their own needs, then you
set realistic expectations. But there is no overall grand coordinated
scheme, and there never will be. I just don’t see. Because each
nation has their own interest, and they’re legitimate interests.
The Europeans want to develop their own industrial capacity for remote
sensing, and that’s fine, they should be able to do that. They
shouldn’t have to have us come in and say, “Hey, we’ve
got the sensor, you just launch it for us.” Where’s the
value in that for them? How do they ever get on their own? You could
say, “Well, they save money.” But right now national interest
But I think clearly the IPCC is a classic example of international
coordination at the science level.
Do you want to talk at all about your work with the Aqua satellite?
is a sad thing. Aqua went up, and I became a dean, and I’ve
hardly done anything since.
That’s a shame. I figured you had done quite a bit with that.
I got it up, and my science just stopped. I only right now do some
work for the Navy. I have some ONR [Office of Navy Research] money.
But to really work with NASA data requires you to just work on it
all the time. When you’re running an organization, you got to
pick just little bits of science that you can do. That was one where
I had an interdisciplinary team, and I was a MODIS team member, and
when those came up for renewal I just said, “I’m done.”
Is that the case with your supercomputer networks? That $10 million
grant that you received from NASA?
actually, yes, that did its job. Because we had people doing that
as part of my IDS [Integrated Decision Support] team. It’s interesting
because our college was a little different. It started out as just
oceanography when I got there. Then atmospheric science came into
us from the College of Science about 12 years ago. But when I came
up in ’88, the dean at that time said, “This satellite
remote sensing and ocean modeling look like they’re going to
be big things, so I’m going to hire some smart young people
in that.” He got me, he got Dudley [B.] Chelton from JPL, he
got eventually Mike [Michael H.] Freilich from JPL, he got Andy [Andrew]
Bennett. I guess Andy had been at Harvard [University, Cambridge,
Massachusetts] doing modeling. Bob [Robert A.] Miller and a few others.
So we all came in. There was an interesting alliance between modeling
and remote sensing at that time. The reason I say our college is different
is it’s 90 percent funded by the federal government through
competitive grants and contracts. We’re celebrating our 50th
anniversary this year. That has been true for 50 years. It’s
almost an FFRDC [Federally Funded Research and Development Center]
with a little bit of state money and a big wad of mostly NSF but a
lot of NASA and NOAA money. So about $30 million a year grants for
about 65 faculty, real research-intensive.
Before I became dean, people saw this modeling as an important thing.
So that’s continued. We just finished upgrading our network.
Our network within our college is better than anything on the campus.
We have petabytes of storage and teraflops of computing. It’s
not in a big supercomputer anymore. It’s everybody’s little
deskside or a cluster in a rack. In some sense, that initial kick
start got people thinking about computing and kept our college going.
We’re now into what I like to call our third generation of modelers
and satellite remote sensing faculty. After the first wave, the second
generation are full professors, and they’re starting to hire
postdocs and others of the third generation.
Did you come up with any new modeling techniques as a result of this
me, but my team did. People were working on all sorts of new ways
of doing data assimilation primarily. There were a lot of new techniques
on assimilating both in situ data and satellite data, and trying to
understand the characteristics of the satellite data and how you could
assimilate it into the model in a rigorous way. There was a lot of
that technique development. So that’s one side, the mathematics.
The second side is much more developing more comprehensive models
of the ocean ecosystem, linking physics and biology. I had a whole
series of postdocs who worked with me on that. Although I was just
the ecologist, I wasn’t a modeler. But it’s funny. I go
to meetings nowadays, and people will stand up, and they were all
either my postdoc or PhD student, and they’re all talking modeling.
So it’s odd how things work out.
I think we’ve talked about this, but do you think that there
are any other essential decisions or events that need to occur over
the next 20 years that you see out there?
NASA and NOAA have to figure out how they’re going to play together.
Somehow the country has got to come up with a strategy to have a long
term climate observing system that meets science needs as well as,
“operational needs.” That’s not retreading a weather
satellite, and it’s not stringing together a series of research
missions, which is what we’ve done for the last 40 years.
Ocean altimetry is the only one that’s successfully made that
transition from research to operations. That took 25 years. That’s
one sensor. The nation hasn’t said, “We need a long term
permanent observing system in space to look at these long time scale
processes,” beyond just, “We need a permanent presence
in space.” That’s all we’ve said. We’ll always
have a meteorological satellite ready to orbit so that we don’t
miss Hurricane Katrina. Until we get to the point where we say, “We
always have to have a permanent presence in space to understand how
ice shelf dynamics are changing over time,” we’re never
going to get there. That’s the number one decision I think.
NASA and NOAA have to figure out one, what does that system look like,
and two, what are the roles and responsibilities for those two agencies,
what’s NASA’s role and what’s NOAA’s role,
and how do I align those together.
Because what happens now is NASA develops a system, basically a tool,
and NOAA says, “Oh, well, it’s going to take us 15 years
to figure out how to build a budget line to get it into our portfolio.
Gee, NASA, can’t you just keep flying them?” That’s
what happened to ocean altimetry. It was only through good graces
and good luck of NASA and CNES that it kept going long enough for
EUMETSAT [European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological
Satellites] and NOAA to build up the case internal to them so that
they could have the budget and have a home for it.
That’s one decision that has to be made. I think the second
gets back to that earlier rant about the science community. We have
to start thinking about how we help people adapt to climate change,
and what are the issues people need to face, and how can we help them.
Because we’re just delivering predictions and interesting science
and understanding, but for the person on the street or the person
making an investment or the person making a vote, it’s irrelevant.
We haven’t gotten down to that level of detail and understanding
that really touches where people are going to make a decision. It’s
just out there. It might as well be Neptune to some extent. They’re
aware of it, and it just seems either, like we said earlier, hopeless
or you’re going to destroy my economy. I think we have to really
have a little bit of soul searching to figure out how to do that,
because that’s a hard problem. I don’t quite know the
answers. I’m coming up on retirement. But somebody else has
to think about how to do that. That’s the second decision.
The third one I think is one that is really troubling. It’s
again for the science community at large. It’s federal funding
masters and academia. So this is what happens when you get older and
you sit on the Science Board. You start thinking these things. It’s
been 50 years, 60 years now, for NSF and ONR. When the federal government
said, starting with the Navy, “There’s some fundamental
research that we can achieve, that we need, that’s better done
in a university setting than within a government lab. We get better
product and we get next generation engineers and scientists out of
it.” The university said, “Okay, if you’ll pay our
indirect costs, we’d be happy to do that.” That partnership
has been enormously successful. I think it will continue to be successful
on a lot of the basic fundamental science.
However, when you look at the kinds of questions that we just asked,
what I call the Portland Metro councilor question, it’s incredibly
interdisciplinary, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear
publication in a refereed journal for promotion and tenure for an
individual scientist. Because remember, the funding and the promotion
and tenure are all still individuals. That’s the whole reward
structure, and that’s good, nothing wrong with it. But when
you think about these other kinds of questions and people working
with the Portland Metro councilors to try and help, what’s the
metric? How do you fund them, how do you promote them?
We in the science community will tend to still look at, let’s
just say somebody issues a call, “We need to have a major program
on ocean acidification and its impact on coastal upwelling ecosystems.”
What happens is that it’s like a gypsy caravan shows up in your
parking lot. You’ve got all these individual scientists who
show up and say, “I’ve got this widget and I’ll
sell you, Mr. or Ms. Program Manager,” and eventually you as
a program manager and maybe a science steering committee can put together
a program and an answer. That’s okay, that’s good. Again
a lot of great science comes out of it. However, when you look at
doing risk management vulnerability assessments, super interdisciplinary,
much more than just physics, chemistry, biology, much more than just
oceanography, atmospheric science, not clear to me that model works
real well. I’m not sure what that new model is. But I think
it’s a decision to think about how universities are organized,
how we reward faculty, and how we teach students. It’s something
we really got to think about.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the answer that I see a
lot of my colleague institutions doing, which is creating colleges
of everything. I’m going to create a college of the environment
and I’m going to create a PhD program in ecology. Again that’s
not much different than, well, a new gypsy has showed up at the market
with a different ware. What does that program mean? It’s not
that we need to train everybody to be super interdisciplinary, but
we need to train them enough to think about and to be able to communicate
with a more diverse audience set, not only of colleagues, but of people
you’re talking to. Because if you look at that 50-year-old,
60-year-old tradition of academia and government, people always come
to my college, 90 percent federal funded, and they say, “Well,
gee, I didn’t even know this college was here in Oregon. This
is really killer.” I say, “That’s fine.” Because
the only people we talk to are our science colleagues through journals
and our program managers in Washington, D.C. I spend more time inside
the Beltway than I do in Salem, Oregon, for good reason, because 90
percent of my funding comes here. So my stakeholder set is not the
guy or gal down the street, or the business owner, or the person who
owns a Hewlett-Packard factory. It’s a program manager within
a building inside the Beltway, largely, unless it’s NSF, which
is in Arlington [Virginia].
If you want to take Earth System Science to the next level, we got
to really think about how we teach, how we reward, and how we organize,
and how we communicate, and that’s not just create a mega department
or a mega college. That could be, but I’m thinking that that’s
probably not the right approach. There’s an awful lot to say
for smaller teams that are more diverse and more flexible to come
together for a problem and then maybe split apart. But it’s
going to be a challenge for universities to think about, because they
are so much organized along very strong discipline individual science
grounds. It’s not clear to me. They’re going to do the
great science stuff and engineering that’s gone on for the last
60 years, and they’ll continue that in the future. But the Earth
System Science questions, the big ones now, the human dimension ones,
what do I do about it questions, I don’t know that universities
are the right place. I’m not sure that federal agencies are
the right organization either. We’re all pretty segmented out.
I’m not quite sure how this is going to play out, but it’ll
be an interesting experiment to watch.
Because unfortunately we have to do it, but I’m not seeing anybody
that is able to do it. It comes down to people want simple answers,
they want short term answers, so you got to educate them that there
are no simple—Steve Rayner calls these wicked problems. Uncomfortable
problems with uncomfortable solutions. Actually, I would argue with
him. It’s a dilemma. There is no real solution yet. You’re
going to be constantly trying something new and seeing what works
and adjusting your strategy. That to me is probably the biggest, and
it’s in some sense, the unspoken discussion within the halls
of academe or the agencies. I’m not quite sure that they know
quite what’s going to hit them.
That brings to mind another question, just looking back at ’83.
Then I’ll let you go. This new move towards the interdisciplinary
Earth System Science, were there any turf wars or people who thought
we need to focus on Earth science, we’re not going to look at
atmospheric science, we’re not going to, we don’t want
yes, there are always turf wars. I have this battle internal to my
university too. When you say Earth System Science and you’re
at an ag [agricultural] school like me, the dean of ag sci [Agricultural
Science] would say, “Well, we do that too, we work with the
Earth, and we do science, and we’re working in systems.”
You say, “Well.” It was a hard argument to have. I think
I had a forestry dean and an ag dean all arguing that they did Earth
System Science, and my college should be all embedded in their college.
I said, “Whoa, hold on.” You’re looking at an important—again—class
of problems, but they’re narrowly defined in space and time.
I always tend to think in time and space scales. Maybe it’s
because of where I got my PhD. My adviser always said, “Think
of time and space scales.” It’s what kind of crop do I
need to grow this year, think about new varieties, cutting cycles
for trees. It’s very well-defined. Earth System Science is much
broader and much more strategic as opposed to solution. What are the
strategies I need to put in place? So there were a lot of turf wars
in that. It sounds subtle and it sounds academic, but there really
is a difference in the mindset and the kinds of science that the faculty
and the students engage in.
There is some complementarity, there’s no doubt. They should
work together. But there were a lot of turf wars. I think there were
some in the early days of EOS. There was a perception that everything
was atmosphere chemistry, for example. Well, that’s because
Dixon and Shelby were atmosphere chemists. I think that that was an
unfair characterization, but people who thought that could say, “But
see, those two guys, we’re getting dissed because they’re
atmosphere chemists.” Those went away over time. But initially,
again, you were taking a community that really had not worked this
way before. I would say it probably took about five to ten years for
people to get over it and get beyond that.
I think the decadal survey [Earth Science and Applications from Space:
National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond]; really that’s
another kind of event. Thinking again, that’s another event
from two years ago that really transformed the Earth science community,
because there were several of us, me included, who thought that was
a dumb as dirt idea. Because it was something that if you look at
the space science communities that have done it, the astronomy community,
they had done it for a long time, and they’d laid a lot of groundwork,
both culturally and processwise, to manage that, and we’d never
done it. I think it came out pretty good. I think I would give—and
I told Rick [Anthes] and Berrien [Moore III] this—I’d
give them like a B minus. It’s a passing grade. But what didn’t
happen was a lot of community frothing and fighting, which was good.
That part, they get an A. On their understanding of NASA and NOAA
budgets, that’s where they were lower. So their overall grade
was a B minus. But I would say that was another one of those big singular
events that happened. It happened probably at just the right time
for the community.
So EOS was beginning to look. What’s coming here at the end?
We’re starting to see the end of it. NPOESS is a mess. What
are we going to do? So it was good to revive some of that community
feeling. Brings to another issue, ties into that first, that previous
diatribe on academia and organization—young faculty and young
scientists. I do think that we’ve lost a lot of core capabilities
in both science and technology. It’s in part because the world
is so competitive for funding, and the young ones can’t take
risks anymore. They’ve got to get tenure in six years. They
can’t afford any mistakes. So they tend to be much more incremental.
I think that that sense of community, it’s hard for them to
balance that. When you look at this class of problems, and then you
just even look at your core capabilities, your core competencies,
even that’s at risk. Who knows how to build an ocean color sensor
anymore? Used to be universities had a lot of space instrumentation
capability, and that’s gone.
It’s interesting, when I look back, that what I think I bring
to my college was in large part having worked at JPL. You say, “Well,
why is that?” Because the NASA Centers involve the scientists
in a real—you get hitched up to a program or you don’t
succeed. Mine was EOS. I see this in my colleagues who went through
that and have gone on to academe. They bring a different flavor to
the academic enterprise that you don’t see in most people who’ve
only spent their career in a university. There’s something about
having to work in a program and in a project where you understand
how to balance science and technology, where you balance cost and
schedule and performance, you have to work as a team with a whole
range of people. That begins to get you towards that Earth System
Science mentality that academe doesn’t necessarily build.
I would like to see more young scientists come into Goddard and Langley
[Air Force Base, Hampton, Virginia] and JPL and then go on out into
academe to infuse that mindset, because it’s a unique mindset.
I don’t know if that’s happening much anymore, but I sure
see that with my young faculty who’ve not been to Centers. They
just think differently. It’s, “What have you done for
my lab lately?” It’s not that they’re selfish, they’re
just trying to meet what they think are the promotional goals. If
you’ve ever worked in a project, you know you got to think about
that program operating plan and where does your RTOP [Research and
Technology Operating Plan] fit within that. It’s a different
Sounds like it.
it really is.
Is there anything else you think we should talk about?
I think that’s good, I think that’s enough. I don’t
know, there might be more.
When we send you the transcript you let us know. Thank you very much.