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.
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.
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.
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.