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Elkins, Jim
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Elkins, Jim

Keeping an eye on 'trace' gases

NOAA scientist Jim Elkins, Ph.D. is co-Principal Investigator on the HIPPO project, a landmark study to map the global and seasonal distribution of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, gases that deplete the planet’s protective ozone layer, and others that contribute to air pollution.    

Why does your research matter?

We measure trace gases not only at ground-based sites, but from airborne platforms that have included balloons, manned aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems. Many of the greenhouse gases and ozone depleting gases that we measured are destroyed in the stratosphere.  Models of the chemistry of the atmosphere require good vertical profile data to calibrate their models for future predictions of climate change and ozone depletion. So, providing those data are important to our understanding man’s impact on climate.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

The travel involved in our field studies and scientific meetings is definitely a big plus in our line of work. I would have never visited so many places outside of work.

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

I do most of my work in my office at the computer including logistics for field campaigns, planning of future instruments and missions, writing papers, reports, and proposals, and unfortunately all of that boring paperwork that comes with any job.

What in your lab could you not live without?

" Models of the chemistry of the atmosphere require good vertical profile data to calibrate their models for future predictions of climate change and ozone depletion."

In the field, lab, and office, I could not live without having a moderately equipped Swiss Army knife like the Explorer model. It is a godsend. In case you need a tool, most of the time it is right there in your pocket.

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

I would love to invent a handheld device that could measure the Earth’s composition to very high precision and accuracy in any environment. I would place them everywhere including those locations that are hostile and remote. Most analytical instruments in atmospheric chemistry are too complex, too expensive, and way too large to answer all of the questions about our changing atmosphere.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

After I ground an eight-inch telescope mirror and made my own Newtonian telescope to study planetary astronomy, I realized that science was the perfect field for me.

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

Thomas Jefferson, as President, commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, former soldiers, to record their scientific observations of the inhabitants, geography, and wildlife in the new land purchased from the French in the Louisiana Purchase. Another goal was to find a route through to the Pacific Northwest for trade with Asia. So, I recommend someone exploring a career in science to the read, The Journals of Lewis and Clark (from the Lewis & Clark Expedition) by Meriwether Lewis. It shows how people with little formal training in the sciences rise to the occasion and become remarkable scientific observers.

And how about a personal favorite book?

For pleasure reading, I love the books of Tom Clancy for his technological insight along with the political and military intrigue of a novel that could be true.

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

I never thought that I would have to do so much routine paperwork.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I have way too many hobbies. But, recently astrophotography is my favorite, because it involves sophisticated computer programs for tracking and enhancement of photos and new technology for photographing the planets and star systems through a telescope. An amateur astronomer with a modest size telescope can create almost Hubble quality photographs.

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

I wanted to be a pilot at undergraduate school, but I suffered from extreme motion sickness. So, I went into math and science, because I was better at that. Through time I have reduced my motion sickness to point now where I can fly without any effects. I hope to start flight instruction soon, perhaps with my son as my flight instructor.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Thomas Jefferson is my favorite historical scientist, because of his inventions, innovations, and observations of weather and climate. He carried a thermometer with him everywhere and recorded the temperature, and later the barometric pressure, and rainfall amount in a notebook. He published his meteorological data in a chapter on climate in his book on Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Jefferson said that “science is my passion, and politics is my duty.” He also observed the unusually cold weather and drought at his home in Monticello during the summer of 1816 (Year of No Summer in Europe and North America), which afterwards was thought to be the result of the volcanic ash propelled high into the atmosphere from the explosive eruption of the Indonesian Tambora volcano in 1815.  

He either invented or innovated a new moldboard for a plow, a cipher wheel for diplomatic correspondence, a spherical sundial, a cannonball clock that displayed the day of the week, a duplication machine for letters, a dumb waiter, a wind vane that showed its direction inside and outside of his house, and a revolving book stand for reading more than one book while keeping the page of each book opened. As our third President, he created NOAA’s predecessor agency, the U.S. Survey of the Coast (now the US.. Coast and Geodetic Survey), in 1807.


Elkins specializes in the fields of climate change and ozone depletion at the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. To measure changes in atmospheric chemistry, he has developed instruments that have been carried by balloons, by ships, by railcar and by aircraft. Elkins, who is also a visiting scientist with the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), was a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. NOAA logo.

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