With fires and mudslides wreaking mass devastation on portions of California, and epic hurricanes hammering the East Coast and parts of the South, obliterating the Puerto Rican electrical grid, it would be easy to believe the apocalypse is finally about to hit us all.
One voice of reason amid the environmental chaos is Jet Propulsion Laboratory oceanographer and researcher William Patzert, who has spent the past four decades warning of the dangers of climate change.
Patzert, 77, retired last Thursday after 35 years at JPL and another 11 years spent working at the University of California’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography. And, with good health and a strong mind still working in his favor, he intends to continue fighting to raise awareness and create positive change to save the planet, even as he finally pursues his personal “bucket list” with enthusiastic vigor.
“For decades I worked on water issues, which is a huge problem and always has been in the past and will be in the future, especially in California,” says Patzert, who spoke at a League of Women Voters symposium on climate change at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach last Saturday. “Everything, from local to regional and statewide issues, is ahead of us. I plan to participate in my local water board and advocacy groups that try to deal with it, because I always say you can’t separate environmental rights and issues from human rights and issues.”
Patzert was born on Long Island and raised there until the age of 10. His father served with the Merchant Marines in World War II and operated a small commercial fishing boat afterward. His father as a teenager was an Eagle Scout who harbored a strong passion for the environment and weather science, sparking his son’s interest in those subjects by giving him numerous science books throughout his childhood.
As an eventual Eagle Scout himself, Patzert spent his teenage years along the shores of Lake Michigan after his family moved to the Midwest and initially studied math and physics at Purdue University. But his life changed forever when he decided to attend the University of Hawaii’s graduate program in oceanography, primarily because he wanted an excuse to learn about surfing.
“In spite of all my bad intentions, I had great mentors and I got involved in the early days of El Niño research and understanding the large-scale climate variations that come from ocean interaction with the atmosphere such as El Niño, La Niña and global warming,” recalls Patzert. “I’ve been babbling about El Niño, sea levels and global warming ever since. In the early ’80s I joined a group of scientists and engineers at NASA JPL to study the ocean from space, which was a revolutionary idea at the time.
“The oceans cover 70 percent of the planet, and most of the ocean is hostile and inaccessible so to regularly monitor the ocean, you can only do it from space with satellites,” he continues. “The great team of men and women at JPL working with NASA and the French space agency put together a satellite and program called Topex/Poseidon, which resulted in iconic images of the world’s oceans.”
Those images enabled Patzert and his colleagues to make major discoveries about drought, rainfall and global warming, as Topex/Poseidon and its three follow-up satellites Jason 1, Jason 2 and Jason 3 delivered countless images and data over a 25-year period. Speaking warmly of his many scientific teammates at JPL, Patzert considers it “great serendipity that a surfer like me got to work with so many fascinating people.”
His career took flight amid what he terms as “the great El Niño of 1997 and ’98,” in which unusually warm ocean water near the equator led to torrential downpours over California. He proved himself to be such a natural with the press that he estimates he took part in more than 10,000 interviews during the two subsequent decades until his retirement, admittedly “becoming the face of El Niño, La Niña and climate change in the West.”
“It was a dramatic event, and came right as the desktop computer revolution and the Internet exploded across not only the science community but also in the business and personal realms across the planet,” explained Patzert. “All of a sudden we were everywhere, and it’s estimated more than a billion people across the planet visualized or experienced El Niño through our images. We became a mainstay with the media as a way to visualize these very important climate events. All these things were happening in parallel and I rode that wave like the surfer I am.”
Noting that he regretted the fact that his symposium appearance on Saturday prevented him from attending the Women’s March in downtown LA, Patzert spoke passionately about the need to remain vigilant citizens at a time when many of the progressive reforms instituted in the past 50 years are at risk under the Trump administration.
“There’s a rejuvenation going on right now with this activism. I was there in the Sixties when we demonstrated and got the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and now we’re marching for it all over again,” says Patzert. “Some people are trying to roll back these environmental laws that made the United States so great. It never ends. You always have to be vigilant, always have to be involved.
“The administration is trying to roll back environmental legislation that separates the United States from many other places in the world that are so polluted,” he continues. “You really never can retire if you’ve been involved with these issues your entire career. You do it differently. Sometimes when you stay in one place too long, you get stagnant. I’m looking forward to testing myself in the outside world — but at my own pace.”
Looking ahead to fulfilling lifelong dreams of riding the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Orient Express, Patzert realizes that he must now break his personal rule against airplane travel. It’s a personal sacrifice that has enabled him to proudly “keep my carbon footprint down,” and has often limited his career since he hasn’t been willing to fly to conferences and speeches across the US, much less Europe and South America.
No matter where he travels, he will be sure to wear his trademark collection of Hawaiian shirts.
“I spent all those years in Hawaii before I came back to California for UC San Diego and JPL,” he says. “I love Hawaiian shirts, I’ve got a collection of 40 or 50 with some as old as you. It’s my finger in the eye of the establishment. Whoever heard of an oceanographer in a coat and tie?”
He reminds California residents that mudslides, rainfall, drought and fires have been part of the state’s ecosystem for millions of years. Yet he also notes that these problems are “exacerbated by human behavior and climate change. You can’t separate scientific understanding from public policy.”
“You have to put together the total package, and think of the Earth as a great ecosystem with continents and oceans interacting,” says Patzert. “The biggest impact on this whole ecosystem, which has been very delicately balanced for millions of years and is very seriously going out of balance, is us. No species in the history of the planet has had a bigger impact than humans. The bottom line is some people talk about colonizing Mars or other planets. No time soon. Everyone has to realize there is no Planet B.”