Finding Hope at Home and in a Deep Ocean of Possibilities

In this annual series, IEEE Earthzine staff and guest contributors offer short essays on their sources of hope or inspiration in the face of widespread global change.

The Joint Polar Satellite System-1, the first in a new series of four highly advanced NOAA polar-orbiting satellites, successfully launched in November; it will help improve the timeliness and accuracy of U.S. weather forecasts. Image Credit: NOAA

I’ve learned a lot about hope from Rosie. She’s the white Labrador retriever who came into my life as an eight-week old puppy last year. When we first met, neither of us really understood much about what motivated the other. Her attempts to communicate were met with my vacant stares, and the actions she undertook in response to my expressed desires were, well, poorly correlated. But we both knew that, in time, our lives would become synchronized and mutually supportive. In short, what we each lacked in peaceful coexistence we made up for with inestimable hope for the future; hope that with each day we’d come closer to the vision.

Rick Spinrad and Rosie. Image Credit: Rick Spinrad

It’s that same sense of hope that I take into my professional engagement with the environmental community. Do we have tough problems to solve? Of course. They include environmental degradation, ignorance about some of the most fundamental characteristics of our planet (e.g., where does heat get stored, and how is it distributed), and the looming consequences of global climate change.

And yet, daily we make remarkable progress toward these seemingly daunting problems. Scientists are acquiring and analyzing volumes of data that were unimaginable even just a few years ago. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alone acquires more than 20 terabytes per day, and will have archives in excess of 140 petabytes within two or three years.

“Big data” is a new tool in our toolbox. Engineers are designing, building, testing, and operating platforms and sensors that truly boggle the mind. We’re measuring the environmental DNA of water samples and determining the complex biological makeup of specific ocean samples in near real time. We’ve launched satellites that can measure the salinity over the surface ocean from thousands of miles in space.

This was once science fiction.

Policymakers are using the latest science to establish the most effective means for protecting marine areas, and ensuring sustainable yields of our global fisheries. And educators are now using online resources and telepresence to bring the wonder of the oceans to classrooms all over the world.

Telepresence technology brings the marvels of the deep ocean into the homes of people all over the world. Video Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 American Samoa

Rosie knows that with each new trick and good behavior she exhibits there’s a Milk-Bone to be had. I know that with each new bit of knowledge we gain about the oceans someone will start a new company, improve a forecast, or advance a strategy for stewardship. Like Rosie, I’m hopeful for continued development, because I know there will be benefit, and I’ve seen what persistent effort can yield. It’s because of these remarkable accomplishments that I feel so hopeful.

Rick Spinrad is a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University. He served as chief scientist at NOAA during the Obama administration.

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