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Wood, Kevin
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/ Categories: Arctic, Climate

Wood, Kevin

Exploring the History of Climate in the Arctic

Kevin Wood, Ph.D., uses historical weather and sea ice information from ship logbooks to learn about conditions in the Arctic in centuries past. Before joining the NOAA Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) in 2004, Wood sailed the world's oceans for 25 years aboard traditionally rigged sailing vessels. His interest in the historical climatology of the polar regions stems from his experience teaching on sail-training ships much like those used by 19th century explorers, and from working on research vessels in the ice-covered seas of the Arctic and Antarctic. By reconstructing environmental clues from the past, Wood is extending our baseline knowledge of climate of the Arctic.


Why does your research matter?

At first glance my specialty – historical climatology – seems kind of arcane. Who knows or cares that much about climate conditions around the Bering Strait in the 1880s? But now that we’ve been seeing such a rapid loss of sea ice and other environmental changes in this part of the Arctic we need to know how unusual these events are and whether some part can be explained by the large range of natural variability that is characteristic of the climate system or some other factor.

An example is what is often referred to as the early 20th century warming event, which was particularly acute in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic after about 1920. Lots of people look at this fairly abrupt bump in the temperature record and assume that it is either the same kind of thing as what’s happening today due to human influence on climate, or they do some curve-fitting and conclude there’s evidence of a periodic climate cycle. The fact is regional climate varies substantially on its own, with no particular frequency or duration, and will do so in addition to changes that are related to human activities. Sorting out and explaining the different regional effects that play out in the Arctic is a difficult problem, but the research I do provides the baseline information necessary to begin to make these kinds of distinctions.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

"My entire job as a NOAA scientist is a wonderful surprise."

I suppose like every scientist I really enjoy finding stuff out. For me, though, it’s first finding the piles of new (old) data that turn up, for example, in a collection of ship logbooks at the National Archives. Millions of handwritten weather and ocean observations have been carefully preserved there pretty much since the logbooks were closed at the end of voyages more than 100 years ago. Then, after the raw data have been reduced and analyzed, it is so satisfying to be able to document and perhaps explain the climate story that emerges.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

The exciting part of my work takes place in the stacks of great libraries or in museums. But most of it actually occurs in front of a computer monitor in an extremely average office in Seattle. I also help out with a joint NOAA-Russian Academy of Sciences program called RUSALCA (Russia USA Long-term Census of the Arctic), which gives me the opportunity to work in the Bering and Chukchi Seas for a few weeks every summer.

What in your lab could you not live without?

Access to library search engines and online journal archives, like JSTOR. Also the computing capacity to work with large data sets.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

Two of the best instruments I could imagine were invented in the past few years. The first is Old Weather. This is a very nifty citizen-science program that helps us transform large numbers of crucial but non-machine readable handwritten weather observations into digital forms that can be assimilated by the second very cool invention, the sparse-input reanalysis system. These things take historical surface observations – generally barometric pressure and some measure of sea surface temperature – and (with some massive computing power) reconstruct the state of the Earth’s atmosphere from the surface to jet-stream level for every six hours since some time back in the 19th century. That is an invention. It allows us to squeeze far more information from the relatively small stock of historical weather observations that we have and so we’re able to better understand the forces that caused particular events in the past and presumably will do so in the future too.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I've always been interested in science but felt I really wanted to do some exploring before settling down. So I spent 25 years sailing around either tropical or ice-covered oceans as a merchant marine officer before I went back to graduate school not so long ago.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

I think Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is fabulous. For a book written in the 1830s it isn’t heavy going and it’s a great true tale of adventure and discovery. I also like Richard Feynman’s popular books because they’re so funny.

And how about a personal favorite book?

That’s hard to say. I’m a sporadically voracious reader. I read all 20-odd volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series (e.g. Master and Commander) in a month. When I think of a single book though that I’ve enjoyed reading for the fun of it, it’d be Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. On the other hand, for an interview like this maybe I should say Thucydides’The History of the Peloponnesian War.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

My entire job as a NOAA scientist is a wonderful surprise.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I enjoy biking (back and forth to work mainly) and playing with my two youngsters.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I still have my captain’s license and do some occasional work driving boats, so probably I’d be doing something much more lucrative in the maritime trades.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

William Scoresby. He was actually a whaling ship captain and prolific writer on the natural history of the Arctic. His most well-known book is the two volume An Account of the Arctic Regions, published in 1820. Herman Melville obviously sourced many of the details (whole chapters) in Moby Dick from Scoresby. He was one of the many amateur scientists of the day who had little to no formal training in the field (not unlike Darwin). I admire him in particular because he was such a keen observer even while engaged in the dangerous business of whaling in the icy sea between Greenland and Svalbard. His perception that the climate in this region had seemingly improved since the late 18th century is credited with helping launch the British Navy on its famous search for the Northwest Passage in 1818.

Wood holds a master mariner’s license for steam and sailing vessels and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

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