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Let Science Speak: Oceans Are the Engines of Climate Change [Exclusive]

The importance of science in our ever-evolving world cannot be overstated — especially since science is under attack right now. When a scientist’s work is demeaned or discounted for political (or other) reasons, what does that mean for the person behind the research? What does that mean for verifiable facts? Beyond the “War on Science” are the human beings who illustrate how their work is intrinsically connected to the personal values so many hold dear — faith, family, health and more.

I had the chance to speak exclusively to Dr. Dawn Wright, Chief Scientist at Esri, about her love the ocean, climate science, the importance of funding research and more.

TV GOODNESS: I watched the episode and I loved how you knew as a child that you loved the ocean. When did you know you wanted to go into oceanography?

Dr. Dawn Wright: “I pretty much knew at age eight. At the time I was watching a lot of the Jacques Cousteau specials on TV. I had to do my own research, back then, in terms of how does one become involved in ocean science?

There was no internet. [Laughs.] So I had to go to the library and sit down with books. I did a lot of reading and a lot of research on colleges and universities that had oceanography programs. It was really neat to be exposed to an understanding that there was this field called oceanography. This was also very important because I came to realize that Jacques Cousteau was more of an underwater photographer rather than a hardcore ocean scientist and I wanted to become a scientist.”

TV GOODNESS: I love that. Your title right now is Chief Scientist at Esri. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and maybe about your favorite part of the job?

Wright: “I should probably start by explaining what Esri is because Esri is actually a pronounceable acronym. It stands for the Environmental Systems Research Institute. Some people say E-S-R-I, but most people say Esri ’cause it’s easier to say.

We are actually the world’s sixth largest privately owned information technology company. We are a world leader in geographic information system software, so I like to call it Google Earth on steroids. It’s mapping software, but it has a lot of back-end analytics with it. So we produce that software and we do a lot of research and development in mapping and in geospatial data science. Our software is used in about 350,000 organizations around the world, including most of the world’s governments, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, and more than 7,000 colleges and universities.

I report directly to the CEO of Esri who is Jack Dangermond. My job is to assist him with science strategy and direction. I also assist most of the teams across Esri including the software development teams in strengthening their understanding the base of science, the trends in science, how our software can better assist scientists to do good science, so that’s an internal function.

Then I have an external role which is to represent Esri to the scientific community. I represent Esri not just as a software vendor but as a fellow participant in science. We do a lot of good scientific research and development projects at Esri. We are strongest in the areas of hydrology and conservation biology, forestry, ecology, agricultural science, climate science, sustainability science, of course the computer science, the geographic information science, the geospatial data science and then most recently, ocean science.

I came to Esri as a college professor, so I still function pretty much like a college professor except I’m not in the classroom teaching. It’s a really cool job.”

TV GOODNESS: Sounds like it. I’m wondering how you heard about Let Science Speak and what made you want to be involved?

Wright: “I was invited to be involved by John Foley, a friend and a colleague of mine. In fact, all of the 5 scientists I knew of or are friends with. Alan Townsend is the only one I’ve not met in person, but John Foley and I are colleagues.

He was participating in our user conference as a keynote speaker for one of my science events. While he was there with me in San Diego, he told me about Let Science Speak and asked me to participate. I thought, ‘Oh I would love to be in something like this,’ so that’s really how that started, that was summer of last year.”

TV GOODNESS: How did you go about crafting your episode? I’m interested in what you decided your topic was and how you approached it.

Wright: “It’s due to the brilliance of Generous Films, who made the episode. They structured all of the [episodes] based on what they knew of us. They did a very intensive interview with me  several months before they came to actually film. They asked me about my science and about my background and about some of the things that I enjoy personally.

More than anything, this series is about not only science and why science matters, but who we are as scientists.  Some of us are parents, some of us are people of faith, we’re all people who care about our communities. So they wanted to know more of my personal story. I basically just followed instructions. I think they did a wonderful job.”

TV GOODNESS: I do too. Speaking of the episode, you say that “oceans are the engines of climate change.” Can you talk about that and about why funding is so critical for what you’re doing?

Wright: “Yes. I say that oceans are the engine of climate change because our planet is essentially a fluid planet. So when we talk about climate change, we most of the time, are talking about the atmosphere. We are sensitive to how the temperature is warming and we are sensitive now to the hurricanes and the many storms.

Hurricane Florence is the most recent example of that, but the atmosphere is really a fluid of air that exists over the ocean, which covers 70% of the surface of the planet. We’ve got fluid atmosphere. So for instance, the jet stream. I notice as we go out towards the east coast, our flight time is a little quicker because we are traveling with the jet stream, we’re traveling with that fluid in the atmosphere. When we come back, we’re going against the wind, so it takes a little longer.

We have currents in the atmosphere as we have currents in the ocean, it’s all very fluid. The oceans play a big role in both our weather which is day-to-day and our climate which is long-term over the course of months and years.

These hurricanes for instance, where are they born? They’re born in the ocean. The ocean is an engine for climate because the ocean can fuel these storms. One of the reasons why Hurricane Florence and some of these most recent hurricanes are as powerful as they are is because they are feeding off the warmer water that’s in the ocean. As ocean temperatures rise, that produces these monster storms.

The greenhouse gases that we are putting into the atmosphere through our automobiles and our factories and so forth, the oceans play a big role in absorbing those greenhouse gases. They’re really trying to help us out in terms of this whole climate change issue.

The oceans are facing a tipping point now where they are absorbing so many of these greenhouse gases that they are literally turning acidic. This is the problem that you hear about in terms of ocean acidification. The PH of the ocean is actually tipping towards a more acidic number. This endangers coral reefs, it endangers fish and plankton, and all kinds of sea life. It’s starting to tilt our planet out of balance.

In order to study the ocean, we need expensive research ships and vehicles. We can find out a lot about the ocean through satellites, which is very cost-effective, but that really only gives us a good idea what’s happening at the surface. If you want to understand what’s going on throughout the ocean’s full depth, you need to be in the ocean with ships. Often times, those ships will cost anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000 a day, depending on their size. It takes a lot of funding to really be a good oceanographer.”

TV GOODNESS: What’s one thing or maybe even the most important thing you want people to take away from either the series or your episode or both?

Wright: “I think the important thing for me is for people to understand that science matters, science is important and that science is not the enemy. Those of us who are working as scientists, we are fellow human beings, fellow citizens along with everybody else.

As I mentioned before, we are also parents, we’re also people of faith, we are people who care deeply about our communities, about our planet. We hold many of the same deeply held values that our neighbors do. That’s why we are concerned about how our planet is changing, how our climate is changing, the dangers there. I think it’s important for people to see the human side of scientists.”

Edited for space and content.

Let Science Speak is a six-part digital short documentary series. Click here to watch episodes, available now.

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