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Cokelet, Edward
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Cokelet, Edward

Taking the bearings of an icy sea

Edward "Ned" Cokelet, Ph.D., is a physical oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle. Using measurements taken from research ships, icebreakers, ferries, and fishing boats, Cokelet studies the physics that support Bering Sea ecosystems and how they may change in the future. From ocean temperature and salinity to the movement of currents, physical properties of the sea lay the foundation for the oceanic ecosystem. Read on to learn how a childhood summer excursion sparked his passion for the ocean.


Why does your research matter? 

The eastern Bering Sea is one of the world’s largest continental shelves. This broad, shallow (less than 200 meters deep) shelf supports a productive ecosystem of plankton, fish, seabirds, marine mammals and humans, including the United States’ largest fishery. Sea ice and weather govern conditions there. Our research aims to understand how the system works now, and how it might evolve in the future owing to climate change. 

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I enjoy using instruments to measure the ocean and mathematics and computer analyses to figure out what the measurements mean. 

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

Most of my work is in my office at a computer, turning mathematical equations into computer programs to analyze our measurements. However, going to sea for a few weeks each year, making shipboard measurements, and working long hours side-by-side with colleagues is a lot of fun, even if it is hard work.

What in your lab could you not live without?

I could not live without my computers (Macs, Windows and Linux machines) to download our measurements, analyze them, graph them, write about them, and find and read other scientists’ work.  

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

Most fluid motion, from the propulsion of zooplankton and insects to the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, is governed by a set of equations called the Navier-Stokes equations. Finding a general, exact, mathematical solution to this difficult, nonlinear set of equations would be a huge advance, but it is probably impossible. Today we rely on numerical, computer models of approximations to these equations to study the atmosphere and ocean. Exact solutions even to approximations of the Navier-Stokes equations relevant to the atmosphere or ocean would be most welcome to understand these flows and to test and improve numerical models. 

Our research aims to understand how the system works now, and how it might evolve in the future owing to climate change."

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

One summer day when I was about 10 years old, the University of Washington’s oceanographic research vessel Brown Bear was working in front of our house on Puget Sound. My dad and I motored out in our dinghy and were invited aboard to look around. I had already decided that I wanted to be a scientist, and it was clear that oceanography was a science combining lab work and field work at sea. I was hooked! 

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

I do not have any specific books to recommend, but I advise prospective scientists to consult their school or public librarian. These trained professionals are a great resource.  

And how about a personal favorite book?

My favorite authors are Simon Winchester and Stephen E. Ambrose. Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology and Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West are two of my favorite books about science, exploration, and overcoming challenges. 

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

Besides answering the questions here, I least expected having to write proposals to solicit funding to do our work, and then to write interim progress reports, sometimes as often as quarterly.  

Do you have an outside hobby?

I like to cross-country and downhill ski, bicycle, hike, ride my motorcycle, and do home improvements. 

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

Being a scientist has always been at the top of my list, but I think being a mechanical or civil engineer would be interesting. And then there’s being a trial lawyer, but I would have to wear a suit to work! 

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

I admire G.I. Taylor. Sir Geoffrey did fundamental research in solid and fluid mechanics including work on viscosity, animal propulsion, turbulence, blast waves, aeronautics, meteorology, and oceanography. He was also a keen sailor who invented the CQR (or secure) anchor that has great holding power for its weight. I was fortunate to meet him in my first year of Ph.D. study at Cambridge University. 


Cokelet earned a bachelor’s degree in 1970, a master’s degree in 1971 in oceanography from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 1976 from Cambridge University.  He joined PMEL in 1978.   

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