Dr. Claire L. Parkinson, Climate Change Senior Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, received the 2015 William Nordberg Memorial Award in Earth Science on June 10. Following a short ceremony, Parkinson presented a scientific colloquium on climate change and decreasing sea ice to an auditorium full of fellow scientists, family, and other Goddard employees.
“I am thrilled to get the William Nordberg Award,” Parkinson said. “It is a recognition from my colleagues here at Goddard, so I’m really honored that they would select me.”
Parkinson earned the prestigious award—the highest an Earth scientist can earn at Goddard—thanks to work that led to a better understanding of the importance of polar sea ice in Earth’s climate system.
Building from the work of Nordberg, who in the 1970s pioneered technology for Earth satellite imagery, Parkinson and colleagues developed the details of sea ice satellite observations.
“I like to think that Bill Nordberg would be pleased with the thousands of results from thousands of scientists around the world who have been using satellites following the pioneering work that he and his colleagues did back in the 1960s and ’70s,” Parkinson said.
The analyses of sea ice global trends done by Parkinson and her Goddard colleagues provided some of the strongest signals of climate change. Her leadership as project scientist of the Earth-observing Aqua satellite mission also helps to provide valuable information about Earth’s water cycle.
In her colloquium, Climate Change as Revealed in Satellite Sea Ice Observations, Parkinson emphasized the value of satellite data, which offer global perspectives on many topics, including the substantial decrease of Arctic sea ice cover over recent decades and a lesser-magnitude increase in Antarctic sea ice.
Sea ice is white, frozen seawater floating on the surface of polar oceans. This ice covers huge areas of these oceans during the winter, reflecting most of the solar radiation reaching it back into space. However, the changing Arctic climate has resulted in less sea ice, so that more of the incoming solar radiation strikes liquid ocean rather than sea ice. The ocean absorbs most of that radiation, thus warming Earth’s climate system.
A reduced sea ice cover also influences polar plant and animal life, Parkinson said. Microorganisms living within the ice suffer, and that has negative effects all the way to the top of the food chain, for instance to the iconic polar bear in the north polar region. Less sea ice, she said, forces these animals to retreat to land for longer periods than had been the case in the past. Other impacts of decreasing sea ice include enhanced atmospheric warming.
But does the global decrease of sea ice really matter to other places? Yes, because the climate system is interconnected.
“If something major happens in one region, it does affect other regions of the world,” Parkinson said. A warmer atmosphere, for example, leads to thawing of frozen soil and rock layers known as permafrost. This thawing can release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas stored as carbon in the permafrost.
She also said that explaining science to the public is crucial, especially when it comes to decision-making. She encouraged fellow scientists to try to make the best possible information available for decision-makers, “so that at least their decisions can be made in an informed way.”
Parkinson began working at Goddard in 1978, focusing on remote sensing and computer models of polar sea ice. Her research and impressive public outreach initiatives are an example of the broad scientific perspective and leadership characteristic of Nordberg Award recipients, according to the Goddard Scientific Colloquia Committee.
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