Oceanographer and climatologist Bill Patzert retired after almost 35 years at the forefront of studying the ocean from space and communicating Earth science to the American public.
He came to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory after earning a master's and doctorate in oceanography from the University of Hawaii and was there at the start of serious studies of El Nino. Bill helped pitch a new program centered on doing oceanography from space to NASA—which turned into the Topex/Poseidon mission that measured the surface height of the ocean, providing valuable data about our changing planet. The climate data record begun by Topex/Poseidon now extends more than a quarter century.
Read on as Bill talks about his love for the ocean, how El Niño became so famous, and how he surfed the oceans of Hawaii for seven years.
Where are you from?
I was born on a balmy New York City day. The day was clear and unseasonably warm with breezy northwesterly winds between 5 and 30 mph. A good beginning! Actually, I mostly grew up in Gary, Indiana, on the shores of Lake Michigan (a smallish ocean) surrounded by great Pleistocene sand dunes. Meteorologically, we had blizzards, sweltering summers and even tornadoes.
What first sparked your interest in space?
My dad was a sea captain and taught me celestial navigation, shooting the stars and the Sun with a sextant. At night he would point out the North Star and the many constellations and tell me about the mythology of each. This was heady stuff and fascinating for a budding geek. For my generation, Sputnik was huge. We became the first space-nut generation. Sputnik and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Explorer gave many of my classmates and me the "space bug."
Our goal is to better understand the great oceanographic and atmospheric processes well enough to predict what our future will be and to use this knowledge to plan for a sensible future to protect Earth.
On college majors and surfing dreams:
At Purdue University in Indiana, I doubled majored in math and physics and double minored in geology and American literature. Purdue was far from an ocean. When it came time for graduate school, I was ready for a change—what I really wanted to do was go to Hawaii and become a big-wave surfer.
I spent seven years in Hawaii, surfing the waves all around Oahu. But in spite of my wayward ways and as fate would have it, my mentor there was one of the early researchers in large-scale climate research, as well as El Niño. After graduate school, I headed for California.
Tell us about your career path:
My training is in oceanography and meteorology. At the start of my career, the vast oceans and the global atmosphere were poorly sampled. For the first decade of my career, I was a sea-going scientist. I saw much of the world and had great adventures. In the early 1980's, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was flying satellites that were revolutionizing weather forecasting, and NASA was planning for a suite of ocean-observing spacecraft. Taking a gamble in 1983, I hung up my sea boots and cast my future and meager fortune with NASA and JPL. That gamble has been wildly successful. The Poseidon, Jason-1, and Jason-2 ocean satellites have been flying for almost 18 years. These height-measuring observatories have revolutionized oceanography and climate research. To put it simply, I took a big risk and have had a fantastic career. For me, TOPEX/Poseidon has been my career maker.
Who inspired you?
Many men and women have inspired me. My parents were supportive and stimulating. They loved ideas, education and the natural world. Many of my mentors and professors were superb. And, reading Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us" opened new worlds to me. I also had the good fortune to spend a week with the late Arthur C. Clark at his home in Sri Lanka. Wow, what a great guy! He encouraged me to be fearless and let my imagination soar. And every day my colleagues, fellow surfers, friends and good books keep me pumped up. I also enjoy the Los Angeles and New York Times; they are more interesting to me than Twitter.
What is a Research Scientist?
At NASA and JPL, research scientists work with engineers to design and fly science observatories in space to better understand Earth, our Solar System, and deep space. Is that cool or what? Lately, our group has been studying the global rise of the sea level, the great natural climate cycles like El Nino and La Nina, the shrinking of the polar ice caps, and many other ocean processes that impact world civilization. Our goal is to better understand the great oceanographic and atmospheric processes well enough to predict what our future will be and to use this knowledge to plan for a sensible future to protect Earth.
Tell us about the night you witnessed TOPEX/Poseidon's launch.
On the beautiful evening of August 10, 1982, the TOPEX/Poseidon oceanographic satellite was launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. NASA and CNES (the French Space Agency) had labored for a decade to design, fund and build this beautiful bird. When the sun was setting, the rockets fired, and we were all on pins and needles. Wow, there was a lot of tension and excitement that evening. High anxiety, elation and fantastic celebration lasted until daylight. I was privileged to play a small role and reap a great career. For me, it was even better than surfing and dropping into my first monster wave and surviving. If you ask me, 18 years later I can say, without reservation, that TOPEX/Poseidon has been the most successful ocean experiment of all time!
How did El Niño become so famous?
From the beginning of my career at JPL, we went from electric typewriters, to desktop computing, to the internet. We launched Topex/Poseidon, and from the start of the mission it was wildly successful. After 25 years of monitoring the global oceans, it has revolutionized oceanography and climate science. One of the key climate measurements is sea level. Ninety-five percent of the heat from global warming is captured in the ocean. So the unequivocal proof of global warming is sea-level rise. We measured it, and it's now an unequivocal scientific fact.
All these things came together: the tech revolution, internet, satellites that could monitor essentially what was historically an inaccessible global ocean. Then the 1997-98 El Niño hit, just as all these things were peaking. We were riding a tsunami of many factors.
Following the El Niño of 1997-98, the equatorial Pacific shifted to a cooler pattern, La Niña, that often has the flip impacts of El Niño. So, my research switched to understanding the relationship between the warm El Niño to his cooler sibling, La Niña.
The satellite data revealed even larger and longer-lasting patterns that influence the frequency and intensity of these two phenomenon. One of those patterns is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a slow-moving variation of temperatures between the western and eastern sections of the Pacific. In 1998, the western portion was becoming warmer than the eastern portion, leading me to conclude that in the long term, an El Niño-repellant pattern was forming that would favor drought in Southern California for many years.
Now we have 25+ years of continuous data, with Topex/Poseidon and Jasons 1 through 3, and the next satellite in the series, Sentinel 6, in the queue. And remarkable things happened, not just El Niño. The measurements were so well done, so precise, that we actually measured global sea-level rise - which now is about 3 millimeters per year. So over the last two and a half decades, the rise in sea level has been almost three and a half inches.
What has changed for the better at JPL since you started here?
One of the things that has changed the most about JPL during my career is that it's more diverse. JPL looks a lot more like California than when I was hired—more women, more ethnic diversity. JPL is getting smarter and better. It looks a lot like the future of America. And it's a good thing.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Of course, hard work, a good education and focus are important. But real success requires passion. You have to love what you do. Choose your career with your heart, not your head. And make it fun!
What do you do for fun?
When I was 30, fun consisted of surfing and blasting my eardrums with the Beach Boys. And, of course, reading good books. I'm a mystery junkie. Mysteries are addictive! Good historical novels are a treat too. Now, even though I am no longer 30, I still have fun. I collect art of all types... my tastes are eclectic. I have Mexican folk art, Japanese prints, Persian rugs and my prize collection, Hawaiian surf shirts. For exercise, I do some biking, romantic walks on the beach, and have good intentions of doing more. A recent knee replacement slowed me down, but that's no excuse. In L.A., you can turn almost anything into fun. I love the cultural mix of people, the proximity to the mountains and to the sea and the great food.