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Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan  







Oceanography; Space flight  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
27 Jul 1995

  • United States
    District of Columbia
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • 38.89208   -77.032
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Equipment Note
  • Stereo=1; Two recordings, one Decoded MS Stereo and one Mono, mixed to Split Track

DAT #1
JULY 27, 1995

1:52 AC: We would like to describe this as a marine environment and that's really why we would like you to tell us about -you were already an ocean scientist when you went up in the -[KS: right] shuttle. Can you just -we ar hoping that you can tell us what it seemed like to you to look at the earth, see it that why, as you never had before, as a marine planet...and if that spoke to you in any way as a scientist -as a human being.
2:28 KS: one of the few things that happily NASA can not train people for well before flight, is the delight and awe of seeing the planet from orbit w/your own eyes. i came to that experience with a background as an ocean scientist, and a life-long amateur geography interest, and hundreds of hours looking at every other sky lab, and apollo space photo that ever had been taken, and still the first glimpse out the window of the atlantic ocean with bright white clouds over it is, just after engine cut off -as we cross the top of the atlantic on our start of our first orbit was nothing short of breath-taking. it really wasn't til my second flight that the work schedule was structured in a way that i could work things around, and get myself freed up for basically an entire crossing of the pacific ocean. which of course only takes ten or 15 mins. but to get a stable block of time where you didn't need to be distracted, didn't need to be tightly worrying about an approaching time line or dead line, and just gaze, just look broadly out to the 1000 mile distant horizon, and try to assimilate the incredible magnitude of view that you had. the diversity of phenomena in sizes and shapes and colors, even over the ocean realm. or look very intently right near by, below the space craft, or find structure of thunder storms, or frontal systems, incredible turquoise details, finely etched tropical islands or what ever.
3:59 AC: ....this is really a marine world that you are looking at -something that you perhaps understand and appreciate more than other astronauts, who are not ocean scientists.
4:23 KS: yes, you certainly come back recognizing very much ¬
first of all it's a water-world. probably the two predominant impressions non-scientific, non-earth scientist astronauts are those two. that the abundance of water in the atmosphere, in the form of clouds, reminds you, when you see them from that scale, in that span in a very different way than standing underneath a cloud or a front at your home town on the ground, you really come to appreciate the volume of water that our atmosphere contains.
and then almost any inclination orbit but certainly the ones that space shuttles fly to most frequently, if you look at a map and look at the earth that will go underneath you between 28 and a half degrees north latitude, and 28 and a half degrees south latitude, it's mainly water. there's not that much land mass underneath that sort of orbit tracks. and so again, people come back realizing, gosh, you know i think they are saying to themselves -hey, i thought i was orbiting the earth, a dirt planet, and i came back and i saw -i remember seeing mainly lots of cloud -gee that's water, and lots of ocean w.lots of cloud over it, gee that's water. hum. i really didn't see so much dirt. when you live your life as a human being on this planet, the lion share of what you see, think about, read about, have in the newspapers, flying on tv, is about other human beings living on the dry land portions of this planet. so, a small, tiny piece of the biota -the human species, on a total of about 30% of the planet's surface area, makes up 99.9% of what we normally see and hear in media, and education. so it's a very different experience to suddenly get up and have a chance to a lap every hour and a half and in a way have your sense of proportions readjusted. because it's coming at you in a humanly assimilatable scale. every hour and a half you get reminded -gee, that's one time around the earth, and it sure looked mainly blue and white.
6:51 AC: as an ocean scientist can you give me a kind of handy definition of biodiversity -people have been talking about biodiversity since eo wilson.......
7:18 KS: well, i tend to think of it -for simple short hand -as variation. the array of types and categories of living forms of all sorts that make up the total suite of life forms on our planet. there's not a feature of biodiversity that says, life forms you like -because they are cute and you pet them, or life forms that you respect because they are powerful or -they are no dividing lines like that if you are trying to get your arms around the total scope and range of variation, in all the living organisms and creatures that constitute all together Life ¬capital L, on this planet. that's the biome -the whole biosphere of our planet, and the diversity, the variegation of that -multiple types, multiple forms, wlin given categories, multiple genetic sub-types, it's a fractal sort of diversity. there's some scales of it you can perceive very readily, wlin any category you can perceive readily there are sub-scales, and sub-scales, and sub-scales that may take more refined observation or measurement to delineate, but they are there. so that's the short hand way, i suppose. 8:48
8:49 AC: why is it that scientists seem to feel that there is value in all of this variety? that is, why are -why is so much variety good?
9:03 KS: I think human intuition tells us that variety leads to groups that are more adaptable than less diverse groups. and then
scientific insight also tells us that the natural systems of our planet undergo periods of change of varying time scales. whether it changes over a few days; broader scale climate changes over decades or centuries as in glacial ages. and the ancient climate records, the ancient geological records tell us that assemblages that were very diverse at the onset of a glacial stage for example did not in their full diversity survive, but some sub¬sets of that assemblage survived, and became the nucleus for replenishment of that plant population for example once glaciers retreated again. it's an easy step in the from observing that in the ancient record to saying well, what if it had been the case that there was not an array of plants in that region at the time. there happened only to be that one that i just see as fossils. well, it would have just died out and let no vestige to begin again from. so diversity leaves you some resiliency in that face of change that you don't fully understand. change that prevents you from predicting that individual tree type will be successful against certain cold climates, this one won't -so let's keep that one, and not the other. we, as scientists i think, tend to come to appreciate the complexity of the earth's natural processes and maybe it's in aa sense respect the complexity of the many processes that make up our planets functioning. that we are not fooled into thinking we could make the pick of what are the right species to keep. what are the important ones -well, important against what? against the next glacial stage? against the best ability to hybridize into the most potent food source for human beings? important in what sense? we realize we have very poor ability and poor insight on which to base such significant decisions. nature seems to have done a very good job of maintaining scales of diversity over millennia. that they have not preserved each individual or every type form the origins of the planet until today, but over 4.6 billion years we have a planet that has increased in the scale and diversity and complexity of life and now is host to a variety of very complex life forms. 11:37
PAUSE -through 11:55
12:12 AC: there's certainly fossil records of marine extinctions, but in terms of contemporary times -when you think about extinctions you think about terrestrial animals -dodo birds or mastodons or -ah, creatures that go extinct. why is there no record of contemporary and marine extinction, and doesn't that suggest that even though populations are greatly diminished by over-taxed fishing and so forth, georges bank now ¬things don't seem to go extinct.
12:55 KS: do you know for sure that we observe enough about the oceans to know that? do we know about what species on the himalayan plateau have evolved or gone extinct over hundreds of years? we know paths of evolution of creatures who are in domains that we observe, where there is enough human contact and observation to track that trend -to say aha -this one used to be here a lot, now it's less -oh, now it's gone. well, at least no one has seen one in decades so it is presumably gone. the record -the ability to observe life in the ocean, other than via fishing counts from commercial fish for example, is not very robust right now. what do we really know about the ocean~ when i was in school it was still taught that life forms in the ocean are only abundant w/in the upper couple of hundred meters where the light gets to, and there are no other forms off life in the ocean. well maybe a few very bizarre, very small little, tiny fish at some great depths, but that's it. 20 years ago, we discovered huge communities, large biota, at hot springs on deep sea vent forms. unsuspected for 100s of years. unsuspected for all of the decades for modern oceanography. we still know absolutely nothing about trends of abundance or total extent of those sort of communities in the ocean. and btwn those few patches where we recognize vent communities in the upper waters where commercial fisheries operate i would suggest we don't know enough to know about what we don't know about populations and extinctions in the oceans. 14:37 you might be exactly right there haven't been as many extinctions in the oceans b/c there hasn't been as abundant human activity or whatever. and you might also be diametrically wrong. we are sufficiently ignorant about the total scope of life in the ocean, i would suggest to be confident of an answer that say there appear not to have been modern marine extinctions. the fossil tape recorder is much better than our current observing systems. 15:06
15:07 AC: are you concerned -would you describe the marine habitat as threatened in some ways?
15:16 KS: i think it is certainly true that marine habitat in some areas, in some locales, is very much threatened. coastal habitats in developing -in developed countries are getting ever more populated. coastal zones are getting ever more populated, and with that comes an increasing pressure on coastal marine and estuarine habitats, which are usually crucial locales for breeding and many juvenile of many ocean fishes. that is a simple thing to observe. today in the u.s. for example over 50% of our population lives on the 10% of our land that is coastal. that's a relatively recent phenomenon. a trend over the last half century. it's a common characteristic to many other parts of the world. there is a trend towards density of populations in the coastal zones, that least??? the pressures on coastal marine environments. so certainly there are important [her mouth/hand hits the mike***see below -chuck asks her to repeat the word] regions, coastal zones, where there are very focused and intense pressures on very important habitats. with respect to the broad blue ocean waters it's harder to know. as a scientist i would say we are typically more painfully aware of how little we do know, and how imperfect our access and sampling to the broad ocean expanses are, and so we be cautious, and saying that we know categorically, quantitatively things about deep water, blue water, mid-ocean habitat. 16:49
CHUCK: asks KS to repeat the word important:
17:17 AC: one particular kind of marine habitat -reefs -as chief NOAA scientist are reefs a globally a concern of yours?
17:29 KS: Both as a NOAA scientist, and as a very avid recreational scuba diver, they are of concern to me. in my own personal base line of diving experience i can see the start of some trends and change in reef condition. i have the good fortune to dive pretty consistently we a circle of colleagues, who's diving experience goes back literally to the origins of scuba, and recreationaly nd commercial diving, and they confirm that, and can amplify beyond my experience parts of the world, parts of the caribbean that w/in their life times were as rich, lush, undamaged and as flourishing w/life as today the south west pacific is, but other places are falling off. so even w/in human life times of people who have dived w/in even the last 30 or 40 years, spot changes are very apparent. caribbean reefs, as tourism and population and diving and fishing pressure have increased, you can see trends that seem to correlate strongly with those sorts of physical incursions to the reef that's now becoming an issue for the tourism, recreational industries in some of the island nations. there is an increasing recognition that there are some mitigating actions that one can take as an island tourism authority, or island country that helps you balance those desires, those factors for tourism industry, but also the reef that drew people. 19:03 scientifically again, there is a challenge of monitoring. i would like to have better scientific data than just my personal base line, in terms of trend, quantafication of factors, and there is a growing internat'l consortium of scientists, marine protected area authorities, even to some degree tourism officials putting together an internat'l coral reef project for ex. to make sure those data are exchanged. that measurements can be some what commonized btwn. regions, so we can begin to build the scientific foundation for more carefully characterizing what changes are occurring. how well can we determine causative factors on a broader scale -on local scales these often are correlations, and causative factors are often quite well known. 19:50
19:51 AC: can you say that there is a human role in this, or are reefs dying b/c there is a reef virus, or an algae die off or ¬
20:03 RS:it is clear in various regions that there are related human factors. there is the great barrier reef in north queensland in australia for example, the evidence seems fairly clear that increasing tourism, the queensland agricultural development over the last century or so have certainly changed sedimentation loads, chemical influxes to the coastal waters added a variety of factors that affect the reef. do they critically affect the reef? do they push it over the edge, and destroy it instantly? no, it's not that unambiguous, and again in that community, the protect area reserve authorities, the tourism industry, the agriculture industry, and the academic community have all come together to put a focused research campaign in place to resolve the jigsaw puzzle -characterize, measure, quantify some of the factors. do a more careful baselining of reef trends and characteristics, and begin to pull these pieces of parts so we can understand what are the mitigating actions that might be really worth taking, worth considering. how far to you need to go with them to have an ameliorative affect. and to what degree to what you are eluding to do they have super imposed on them ¬do the human factors have supper imposed on them -larger scale natural variations that we need to remember are present. 21:28 the natural variations are again very difficult really to characterize because they can be a very long time scale. so if you want to understand the impacts of el nino variability on pacific ocean reefs for example, the el nino is a 3 to 5 year phenomenon to be really confident from a scientific point of view that we can well characterize it's nature, it's extent, it's amplitudes, how all the variables respond as you go into a el nino phase and out, you would probably want to observe 3 or 4 full cycles. well that means a careful consistent effort for 15 to 20 years, before you have the starting point really for deciphering the natural variability component. so you have relatively recent recognition of these interacting causative factors; human, non-human, natural variability, short time scale, long time scale, and really not yet the data base line one would wish to have to be very conclusive about answers. absent, very stable long time series and highly conclusive answers we face then a policy question. which is where we can characterize a concern, or identify a risk or a probability, how do we bring the right groups of people around the table. hopefully collectively, collaboratively...address the question of whether to make our action decisions airing on the side of conservatism -care for the reef for example, or boldness, press on, keep on the current course of action, and wait until something much worse happens to be convinced that there is a human problem, or a human action concern. how do we balance those probabilities and risks and short term and long term concerns? 23:23
23;24 AC:that's a good question, because i think that people feel that -well, is there something i can do about this, or isn't there and if there isn't than what?

23:41 KS: well i tell people that i think there are things they can so that are worth while. #1 is they can really commit themselves for trying to be informed about issues in whatever aspect of the marine environment they care about. it is the largest class of environments on our planet, and human beings are very numerous on this planet. we are certainly are having impacts on the ocean. some of considerations and decision making might well be easier if more of us had given some degree of thought to what is the ocean, how does it affect my life in kansas? affects your life in kansas a lot actually. the tropical pacific probably plays 505 of the game in what your seasonal outlook for temperature and rain fall is. so, inform yourself, recognize the importance of the ocean, and the functioning of this planet as a whole, and therefore in your local interest that would be helpful. and then in an increasing number of people are residents and tourists in coastal zones, or reef areas, marine areas. the expectations or standards that they set for themselves wi respect to human impact, wi respect to litter,wi respect to some care, or sense of stewardship that they are now living in or visiting in. and the standards that they make known to through commercial transactions or participation in govt circles that they believe are the right approaches or standards. that's important involvement, and it is a simple sometimes as making sure you don't cavalierly toss plastic, tin can rings over into the ocean, or leave glass or tin on the beach. don't imagine it is the world's largest 50 gallon trash can out there, and nothing is ever impacted by getting something out of your field of view. so, little bit of info, a little bit of respect, a little bit of participation on a governance level, on a decision making level, or a education level. we all have just the contribution to life on this planet that we can make as individuals. and sometimes it is very easy to under estimate the importance of just polishing up our planet to the highest sheen it can have, but if twice as many of us tried that i think we would see a big step forward. 26:14
26:15 AC: why did you become an ocean scientist?
KS: i became an ocean scientist b/c i found all of the characteristics of the ocean, it's span, it's dynamics, it's composition and make up to be just endless wonders and curiosities. specifically the influence of one professor as an undergraduate who could weave together multiple strands of the physics, the chemistry, the life forms, and really give you almost a living sense of an intricate living physical, chemical system -machine, that was the largest, most intricate thing, in a sense, on this planet. it's a very simplistic way, i captured it as a freshman, but it was enough to set a compelling vision and make me fascinated to understand some of the details. and every time i picked up one of those details, and considered it a little bit again it was like a fractal experience. i found mystery, w/in mystery, w/in mystery, w/in mystery and more and more fascination and curiosity, and there was just never end to it, it was absolutely fascinating, and i wanted to understand how it worked. 27:25

AC: When you saw it -and i wonder if you could close your eyes or a minute, and see it as you did from the space craft, and tell if that experience reached back to your freshman decision, and inspiration to become an ocean scientist.

27:47 KS: i think the experience of having my own opportunity to float up to a space craft when no one -and look outside, and watch the atlantic pass before my eyes, and wait a few mins and watch the pacific pass before my eyes, confirmed that i had made a worth while, and appropriately heart-felt choice in my original education decisions. it only confirmed the wonder, the fascination, the scale, the grandeur, the intricacy, and the simple elegant beauty of the whole environment, and all of those things, together at once, in a most powerful possibly way. so, it was a delightful reaffirming experience and a fraction of a second later there were more questions and answers again, and i was right back where i was as a young student. every piece you pick up is a question and a challenge, and a puzzle, and a fascination. 28:44

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