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Johnson, Gregory
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Johnson, Gregory

Studying the "flywheel" of the climate system

Gregory C. Johnson is an oceanographer for NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and a senior fellow at NOAA's Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. He collects ocean data around the world using ships and Argo floats, which are small probes that capture data in the top two kilometers of the ocean. Thousands of these probes deployed around the world make up the Argo observation system. His work advances our understanding of the relationship between the ocean and climate. Read his profile below to see where else he would like to send the Argo floats.


Why does your research matter?

The ocean is the flywheel of the climate system, storing huge amounts of heat, carbon, and (of course) water. My group and I work with colleagues around the world to collect ocean observations of temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, various chemicals, and parameters that indicate how much carbon the ocean holds. Our analyses, and those of other scientists using these data, increase our understanding of the ocean’s many vital roles in climate, including the hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle, global energy budgets, and sea level rise.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

Wow, that is a hard question! There are so many possible answers. I love writing journal articles. Working with colleagues and students on analyzing data to answer questions about the oceans and then communicating those new results as concisely as possible is very rewarding. Seeing the final typeset article in print is also somehow extremely satisfying. However, I also really enjoy going to sea. Spending a month or more out of sight of land working 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week is hard, but it is a nice change from the office. At sea you are part of a large team focused on a single goal -- collecting a high quality data set.

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

"Our analyses, and those of other scientists using these data, increase our understanding of the ocean’s many vital roles in climate, including the hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle, global energy budgets, and sea level rise."

While I periodically go to sea, and occasionally help out in the lab, I do most of my work in my office with my co-workers and a computer.

What in your lab could you not live without?

Aside from computers, I could not live without CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) instruments. Whether mounted on an Argo float or connected to the end of 10,000 meters of conducting cable on a ship, a CTD is what measures the physical data we need to study the oceans.

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

I am an instrument user, not an inventor. However, I would like to be able to deploy Argo floats capable of measuring pressure, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, and carbon system parameters from the surface to the ocean bottom as accurately as we can measure these data from a ship. Argo floats are routinely measuring the physical parameters in the upper half of the global ocean, but the deep half is important in climate too, as is ocean biogeochemistry. Ships are the only way we can currently measure the full ocean depth and all the biogeochemical water properties globally, but ship-based expeditions are too expensive to collect enough data to learn all that we need to know.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I worked in labs during high school and in college at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The experiences I had there probably planted the idea in my head.

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

I don’t read many popular science books or biographies, but The Endurance, Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander is a gripping book about polar exploration.

And how about a personal favorite book?

This is another hard question. There are so many possibilities. Looking back on the last decade, I really enjoyed reading Bee Season by Myla Goldberg.

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

This may sound very naïve, but when I started graduate school I didn’t realize that I would have to work so hard pitching observation and research proposals to colleagues and program managers, or that I would have to write quite as many budgets as I currently do.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I like to cross-country ski, swim, make furniture, paint, and garden, but what I love doing most when I am not working is sailing racing skiffs.

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

I really am not sure. When I started college I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but I don’t think that profession would have suited me.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Fridtjof Nansen. He was an oceanographer, but also a diplomat, a humanitarian, and a great polar explorer. I admire many of the early polar explorers. Nansen’s Fram expedition, which involved freezing his ship into the ice (for three years) and relying on transpolar ice drift to bring it (almost) within striking distance of the North Pole by sledge, as well as an epic return south by sledge and kayak, was an amazing undertaking.  


Gregory C. Johnson joined NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Research Laboratory in Seattle, Wash., in 1993. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1985, and a doctoral degree in oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

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