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An ocean of data: A day in the life of a NOAA oceanographer
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Profile, Women in Research

An ocean of data: A day in the life of a NOAA oceanographer

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA scientists from across the country are taking readers inside what a typical day in their life looks like. Today's story comes from Adrienne Sutton, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

The theme that dominates my day to day is the significance of time. Every afternoon, another day’s worth of data travel to my research team from all over the world’s ocean. Another data point in the archive. Another insight into ocean change.

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NOAA and partners launched a buoy in Fagatele Bay to monitor changes in ocean chemistry, including carbon dioxide, which can affect the rich coral reefs and marine species of the bay. Credit: Nerelle Que, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

In a climate record, every day matters. My team* and I support the highest-quality ocean carbon dioxide (CO2) observatories deployed on buoys throughout the world. These 38 observatories monitor the ocean from coasts to deep waters, in estuaries and above coral reefs. Using sensors that send us information via satellites, these buoys record air and surface ocean CO2 levels so we can better understand the exchange of CO2 between the ocean and atmosphere, and how the uptake of CO2 by the ocean is causing ocean acidification

Supporting climate records like these means our days are driven by questions about the quality of our data and the effectiveness of our standardized protocols. How well do our systems report the known concentrations in our CO2 gas reference tanks? How well do these systems compare to one another in our testing tank? Did the typhoon that just passed the buoy impact the quality of our observations? Is that low ocean CO2 signal evidence of a phytoplankton bloom? Why did that CO2 system stop transmitting data, and how do we get out there to fix it?

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Me and the CRIMP ocean acidification buoy after a successful sensor deployment in Kaneohe Bay, Hawai’i.

Answering this daily deluge of questions is only possible because many hands contribute. My team includes experts working with the sensors in the lab; standing by the phone in the middle of the night to support scientists deploying a buoy on the other side of the world; managing the data that come to us daily via satellite; upgrading software that processes the data; making sure the best-quality and most accurate data are available to the public; and documenting those data so that future generations will understand how we made our observations and ensured their quality over time.

There are many moving parts and it’s a lot to manage. While my team focuses on the day to day activities supporting ocean CO2 records, my focus is centered on how our data contribute to our understanding of ocean change and how to develop future technology and observing systems that will improve our ocean carbon measurements and further expand our knowledge. 

This work grounds my thoughts in the concept of change over time. Women’s History Month makes visible this era of expanded female leadership in oceanography, yet more time and more growth is needed for diverse leadership perspectives to take hold and change our organizations for the better. If one word described my own practice in leadership during my early career, it would be “overwhelmed.” But with time has come more confidence and more space to evolve my practice of leadership. Right now, for me that looks like developing a culture of appreciation, valuing quality over quantity, limiting the ubiquitous atmosphere of urgency, making transparent decisions, and minimizing our culture’s focus on hierarchy while elevating a world view where everyone is seen, heard, and valued.

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Me (left) with my former postdoc, Sophie Chu (right), who is currently a JISAO Research Scientist and our 2018 summer interns Virginia Parker (middle left) and Treasure Warren (middle right).

There is an urgent need for new perspectives in addressing the complexity of climate change. Ocean change will manifest in a diversity of impacts over a diversity of cultures, a challenge that can only be fully appreciated by a new cohort of oceanographers who bring different ways of thinking and experiencing the world. We must bring those voices forward through a deep examination within our institutions, creating a more welcoming culture that allows a new generation of climate record-keepers to thrive. With commitment, daily practice, and time, we can all be leaders in this cultural shift.

*The PMEL CO2 team makes all this work possible: Roman Battisti, Randy Bott, Sophie Chu, Sean Dougherty, John Evans, Stacy Maenner (February’s NOAA Employee of the Month!), Sylvia Musielewicz, John (Oz) Osborne. 

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