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Earth Science Week 2012
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Uncovering the ocean's secrets from space
Gene Carl Feldman in scuba gear Although Feldman spends most of his time studying the oceans from space, he sometimes has the opportunity to actually visit some of the areas that he has studied.
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By Brandi Bernoskie,
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies

The oceans have always been a part of Gene Carl Feldman's life. Some of his earliest memories involve the time as a very young child when his family would spend summer vacations in a little bungalow at New York City's Rockaway Beach. His grandfather, who was a regular visitor, loved surf fishing and he would often take Gene along with him in the early morning so that he could watch him fish. "Even as a little kid, I was always curious about what was out there beyond what we could see and down below the surface of the water -- there's this incredible living world out there – just out of reach."

Fast forward twenty-something years and while working as a Peace Corps in Samoa, a little group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Feldman spent much of his time bobbing around on a very big ocean in a very small boat. Working at a sea turtle hatchery meant having to go out each day and catch plenty of fish to keep the hungry little turtles fed. Out in the ocean, miles from shore, he had plenty of time to contemplate the environment around him and the world he could not see beneath the surface. Though everything looked pretty much the same from his perspective, he soon learned through trial and error that there were always certain areas where fish were more abundant than others and the question as why some parts of the ocean were more productive than others began to take shape in his mind. It is this question that has driven him professionally, leading him from work on tuna boats in the eastern tropical Pacific, to the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska and ultimately into a PhD program and then on to a job as an oceanographer at NASA.

Gene Carl Feldman wears scuba gear on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Credit: Gene Feldman
Gene Carl Feldman wears scuba gear on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Credit: Gene Feldman

Feldman first began working with NASA in 1981 as part of his Ph.D. research using a recently launched NASA instrument, the Nimbus-7 Coastal Zone Color Scanner to try and start to answer that question that he first began asking on that beach in Rockaway. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1985, Feldman joined the Goddard Space Flight to continue work on using ocean color data sets to better understand the time and space variations in the ocean's productivity. The success of the team's work of which Feldman was a member led to NASA's first dedicated ocean color mission called SeaWiFS (Sea-Viewing Wide Field Sensor) which was launched in 1997 and which in December 2010, after more than thirteen years of nearly continuous operation ceased operations. SeaWiFS revolutionized the way we viewed our planet and provided us for the first time with the ability to monitor the biological consequences of a changing planet - to see how the things we do, and how natural variability, affect the Earth's ability to support life.

More recently, Feldman began serving as the project manager for NASA's Aquarius mission. Aquarius, which is a partnership with the Space Agency of Argentina (Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales, CONAE), was launched in June 2011 with the goal of measuring sea surface salinity, or how salty the ocean is, from space. Salinity along with temperature are the key factors driving the density of ocean water which determines the three dimensional circulation in the ocean. These large-scale currents, often called the global oceanic conveyer belt, are responsible for connecting the ocean's surface and the depths, transporting heat and salt on a planetary scale over thousands of years.

The ocean is the Earth's thermostat and helps to regulate the temperature of the planet. In addition to moving heat and salt, these currents also move gases like carbon dioxide around in the ocean. "Cold water can hold more carbon dioxide than warm water can. Regions on the planet like the North Atlantic near Greenland and Iceland, which is where much of the cold water forms, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When that heavier water sinks, the carbon dioxide it carries is brought down into the deeper parts of the ocean and stored for a very long time."

Data from missions such as Aquarius will help scientists better understand the Earth's natural system and the complex interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere.

Although Feldman spends most of his time studying the oceans from space, he sometimes has the opportunity to actually visit some of the areas that he has studied.

In 2009, Feldman traveled to the Galapagos Island and recorded his journey for NASA as a series of journal entries filled with photographs and his impressions of the islands and their history. In his final entry, Feldman wrote, "I have forever been drawn to the sea and the waters around Galapagos are just magical and behave in ways unlike any others and are home to creatures that I never dreamt that I would actually see."

That wonder of what is out there in the ocean has stayed with Feldman since he was a child watching his grandfather fish, and it has led him to a long, engaging career as an Earth scientist.

On the Web:

Gene Carl Feldman's biography page

Gene Carl Feldman's Galapagos Journals

NASA Aquarius Mission

Careers in Earth Science

NASA Career Resources


 


Earth Science Week 2012
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