Blue Collar Oceanography

03 October 2013

The people collecting the data behind climate change are not "climate change scientists," but technicians and engineers who are attracted to their jobs more for the lifestyle than for the glory of doing climate research.

This winter, Eric Quiroz spent six weeks aboard the research vessel R/V Roger Revelle collecting the data on which climate models are built. To put it bluntly, Quiroz fed vials of seawater into a nutrient analysis machine during twelve-hour shifts. “I wake up, run samples, and go to sleep,” he said.

Quiroz was contracted by the Oceanic Data Facility (ODF, a subsidiary of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) to analyze the nutrient content of water samples on “I8S,” a cruise track in the south Indian Ocean resurveyed every ten years. Other technicians were hired by ODF to measure temperature, oxygen, carbon, and salt content. These parameters form a basic quintet of water properties that are tracked by the Climate Variability Repeat Hydrography program (CLIVAR), a long-term project that produces a public database of physical water properties. Using CLIVAR data, modelers and climate scientists have published seminal papers on climate projections, ocean acidification, and polar ice melt.

CLIVAR and ODF were conceived by some of the nation’s top oceanographers, but the bulk of the data is collected by a team of chemists, engineers, and technicians who find “climate research” to be a glorified description of their work. “[I] just run the machine and keep it running,” says Quiroz.

For a team that sails frequently with leading climate scientists, most of their knowledge about climate change comes from the popular press. Since taking the job last September, carbon technician Susan Alford has learned a lot about taking accurate measurements, but derives most of the context for work from college coursework and public interest articles. Chad Klinesteker, a salts analyzer for I8S, had a similar experience: “I’ve learned a lot about the equipment that we use just from working with the techs,” he said, “but not so much the science.”

Scientists are more than willing to discuss their work but it just doesn’t come up that often in conversation, and it’s irrelevant to doing the job well. According to Quiroz, collecting high-quality climate data requires an “attention to detail and the ability to troubleshoot systems,” more than a degree or an environmental conscience. A good technician has extraordinary patience and follows protocols well. A better technician adapts his or her technical skills to fit any task. Quiroz is a chemist with a degree in marine science, but in fifteen years of ship work he has picked up experience in winch operations and crane work. His predecessor was a watchmaker.

Because the demand for at-sea technicians fluctuates, ODF keeps only a small permanent staff at its base in San Diego. Many technicians are outsourced as needed: Jane Eert, an oxygen analyst on I8S, holds a regular job as a computer programmer. Klinesteker, a salts sampler, runs deck operations for the Coast Guard. These technicians consider working for ODF as a tangent to their permanent careers, but they keep returning for the “camaraderie” and the “slower pace of life.” They say it’s refreshing to focus on a singular task and on the people around you, away from phones, televisions, and other distractions of life on land.

Jim Swift, Chief Scientist for I8S, likens CLIVAR to “blue-collar oceanography.” “We’re at the assembly line level,” he says. “We’re putting together a dataset for other people to use.” And at the end of a day’s work, nobody wants to talk about climate change as they catch sunset from hammocks strung on deck, _ miles from the nearest shore and even further from a newspaper.