In 2016, I interviewed Dr. Rick Spinrad for IEEE Earthzine; Sprinrad was serving as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the country’s premier agency on climate science. In May of 2021, President Biden announced that he would be nominating Spinrad to lead NOAA. I thought back on this conversation, where I learned so very much, and thought it would be worth sharing again.
Dr. Richard Spinrad is a busy fellow. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) first chief scientist in 18 years, he’s a man on a mission. Spinrad attends conferences, goes to meetings on Capitol Hill, speaks with industry players, and talks to stakeholders all over the country.
Spinrad speaks passionately about ocean observations, a changing climate, and a new emerging blue economy where information potentially translates to money in the bank.
While a concrete definition of the blue economy is still emerging, it is clear that it represents a healthy marriage between the economic and the sustainable – a shift away from a solely extraction-based approach to one that considers the health of our ocean ecosystems both now and in the future.
When asked for examples of how ocean data can be transformative, the floodgates open. Spinrad and his colleagues say the ocean services community could be riding a wave to incredible opportunities for economic development, from oil spill prevention and cleanup to ocean temperature forecasts, coastal land management and pharmaceutical research.
For example, harmful algal blooms (HABs) or red tides in the Gulf Coast region produce aerosols, which cause major respiratory problems for many people. NOAA is monitoring HABs and collecting copious amounts of data. Spinrad sees this as an opportunity for the research community to develop HAB forecasts, which can be used just like weather forecasts for effective decision-making.
“Like a weather forecast, it doesn’t tell you take an umbrella today; it tells you it will rain today. It’s up to you to decide, will I take an umbrella or not?” he explained.
From there, a third party can use the HAB forecast and build a tailored product specifically for the public health sector to help clinics and hospitals know when to order extra supplies and prep for an influx of patients with severe asthma.
On the West Coast, where shellfish are part of a $260 million dollar aquaculture industry, integrated observations have helped hatcheries monitor corrosive waters caused by ocean acidification, which upwells and moves into the bays and estuaries.
Ocean acidification is the result of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere absorbed by the ocean; it is also part of natural cycles. The phenomenon negatively impacts early development of calcifying organisms like clams and oysters, and new research suggests that coral reefs are seriously endangered by corrosive waters as well.
A network of buoys, sensors, and observing tools fall under the umbrella of NOAA’s U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), which also is connected to regional networks around the globe. By working with NOAA and ocean researchers, shellfish farmers have been able to use IOOS and regional data to adapt their practices and stay in business in spite of changing ocean chemistry as a result of ocean acidification.
To Spinrad, data and predictive services like these are the currency of the realm. While government agencies and research institutions are collecting tremendous amounts of data, given limited available resources, an agency like NOAA cannot develop all these consumer products. However, the data is ready for some enterprising person to turn information into a product that people want and need.
In October 2015, at an xPrize panel on using ocean data to the fullest, Spinrad told the room full of industry leaders that NOAA collects 20 terabytes of data a day. There are, however, cultural obstacles to turning this data into services. According to Spinrad, while other research-based industries like medical, engineering, and tech have been capitalizing on the fruits of their labors for years, the ocean research community may have not fully embraced this way of thinking, yet.
“One might argue that we’re in the same place the engineering community was decades ago and it’s going to take a recognition that by commercializing, by monetizing our research, we are not giving up the posture that we have in basic research,” Spinrad said.
In the early days of engineering, research was driven by a curiosity to understand how things worked, but as that research unearthed discoveries that led to things people wanted, like automobiles and superfast computer processors, there was a public demand for those products. This demand fundamentally transformed engineering in many ways.
He added: “So the examples we’ve just talked about don’t have a lot of pull just yet. There’s not a demand and a pounding on the table for operationalized harmful algal bloom forecasts around the country.”
Of course, Spinrad understands the pull of basic or fundamental research. “There’s a romance,” he said. “I don’t have any colleagues that I can really think of who went into oceanography to make big money.” He adds that there is nothing wrong with setting out to make money, but he knows many researchers want to be on the leading edge of fundamental discoveries.
He was lured to oceanography by a failed eighth-grade science project and a fantastic New York City public school teacher. Spinrad set out to build an echo sounder, which he planned to use in the East River in New York City. His teacher put him in contact with an oceanography graduate student at Columbia University and pushed him to move forward with the project.
“Well, it failed miserably and I was hooked,” he said with a characteristic grin. “The teacher could have given me an F. He didn’t. He asked me to explain why I thought it wasn’t working. I was fascinated.”
Spinrad also recalls making his father bring home vials of water from each and every business trip. He would boil the sample down and look at the precipitate, hoping to compare one part of the country to another. Although he now suspects his busy father may have simply added salt to tap water, he was fascinated nonetheless.
It may just be this sort of patient persistence combined with his enthusiasm for science that makes Spinrad the right person to get people to see the enormous untapped potential in ocean research.With half of the anti-cancer drug discoveries coming from marine products and marine organisms, and millions of undiscovered species in our ocean, he says ocean services could see a future similar to that of his colleagues in other fields like engineering.In order to make this happen, society will need to make a substantial commitment to sustained ocean observation. This is an area where he sees dramatic room for improvement.
At an MTS/IEEE OCEANS ’15 panel, Chris Sabine, lab director for NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, spoke about ocean acidification and the huge expanses of ocean for which there are few measurements. Sabine is a leader in ocean acidification research, a phenomenon that was little understood 10 years ago, but presents real concerns today. He warns that ocean acidification “is something happening right now, not something we are predicting for the future, and it will only continue as long as we continue to produce carbon dioxide.”
Sabine expressed a need for incredibly durable instruments able to detect small variations in waters out in the open ocean where pH levels are harder to understand. The coastal waters have much more variation and more detectable levels so sensors can be designed around affordability.
Spinrad concurred: “We’re woefully deficient in our observations and monitoring capacity in the oceans in general.”
Without sustained observations, it may not be possible to understand processes like ocean acidification, because critical data will be missing– data that can be used for modeling what is happening in the carbon system.
Spinrad says there aren’t arguments against sustaining NOAA National Weather Service’s Doplar Radar system every year, because people understand the economic impacts of weather on transportation, commerce, tourism and hospitality. Add in the cost of rebuilding communities after major disasters, and people understand why an investment is needed in weather observation satellites and sensors.
Oceans observations are not at that point yet, but Spinrad sees this emerging blue economy, based on information and predictive services, as the way to get much-needed support for ocean observations.
He emphasizes that researchers have only been looking at something like ocean acidification for a few years. It’s happening everywhere, but they haven’t been able to study it in places like the Arctic, because it isn’t easy to make observations underneath the ice.
“Imagine if we said that we were going to provide the weather forecast for the lower 48 states by having one temperature measurement every five states. That’s about the density of observations we’ve got from the Argo float system that’s drifting around the world’s oceans,” he argues. “It looks great when you’re looking at it on a map – it’s got all sorts of dots on it, but it’s really not that well-populated.”
Spinrad remains optimistic and sees positive momentum based on the number of young people who are interested and passionate about addressing problems like ocean acidification.
“I’m encouraged as an old guy,” he joked before getting serious. “I’m encouraged to see that the next generation of researchers understands this and is willing to invest in this, and that the federal government and other agencies are willing to put resources towards this as well.”
Ultimately, Spinrad would rather see a substantial investment in sustained and robust observations to address problems now, rather than leave them for future generations. And, a new blue economy may the best hope for making that happen.