Bill Patzert: Surfing, Sextants and Spacecraft Plus 'Global Warming is the Real Deal'


KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?" Today, we hear from Jet Propulsion Lab research scientist and oceanographer, Billl Patzert:


"I was born on a balmy, New York City day.

"The day was clear and unseasonably warm with breezy northwesterly winds between five and 30 mph. A good beginning!

"Actually, I mostly grew up in Gary, Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan (a smallish ocean) surrounded by great Pleistocene sand dunes. Meteorologically, we had blizzards, sweltering summers and even tornadoes.

"My dad was a sea captain and taught me celestial navigation, shooting the stars and the sun with a sextant. At night he would point out the North Star and the many constellations and tell me about the mythology of each.

"This was heady stuff and fascinating for a budding geek. For my generation, Sputnik was huge. We became the first space-nut generation. Sputnik and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL**) Explorer 1 gave many of my classmates and me the 'space bug.'

"I'm a dreamer and a reader. My dad, Captain Rudy, and I were always cruising the local library. The tales of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville were intoxicating; I was hooked on travel and adventure early.

"The opportunity for adventure presented itself in an unusual manner. I'd blown out my knee playing basketball and dropped out of college my freshman year and ran away to sea.

"I hitchhiked to New York and worked for a seaman's union in Brooklyn. Friends of my dad put me to work on a tramp freighter. I went around the world. I spent a week in Bali surfing and diving, then back across the Pacific through two great big typhoons. Wow, I thought I was in a Melville novel.

"Then I went back to school and double-majored in physics and math at Purdue. I also double minored in American literature and geology. One winter, I saw this book on surfing in Hawaii.

"That led to a great time - I headed to Hawaii for graduate school. You got up at five in the morning, went surfing, then off to class [Patzert earned a doctorate in oceanography and meteorology] and study in the evening.


"Next, I was off to a position at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California - a fantastic research institute and another surfing mecca.

"I worked and played hard, leading many sea-going expeditions in almost every ocean.

"In the 1970s, the vast oceans and the global atmosphere were poorly sampled. Those years were filled with travel for research to Tahiti and many Pacific islands, Australia, Indonesia, South America, Southeast Asia and many other places I had dreamed of as a boy. I saw much of the world, had great adventures and gained a deep appreciation about the great forces of nature.

"In the early 1980s, oceanography was about to enter the space age. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was flying satellites that were revolutionizing weather forecasting and NASA was planning for a suite of ocean-observing spacecraft.

"Remembering the excitement of Sputnik and witnessing the birth of America's new space program, I made a decision that even surprised me. Taking a gamble in 1983, I hung up my sea boots and cast my future and meager fortune with NASA and JPL.

"That gamble has been wildly successful. The TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 and Jason-2 ocean satellites have been flying for almost 18 years. These height-measuring observatories have revolutionized oceanography and climate research.

"To put it simply, I took a big risk and have had a fantastic career. For me, TOPEX/Poseidon has been my career maker.

"Our interests and lifestyles evolve with the times. I think this is natural and healthy. Although I miss hearing the surf and donning the wetsuit every few days, I really enjoy living in Sierra Madre and being an Angelino.

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"The great mix of cultures, fantastic food, potpourri of art forms and ideas, great educational institutions, entertainment - wow, I sound like the C of C.

"I love to speak with students, civic and environmental groups, and, even, the politicos. After speaking all over SoCal for almost three decades, I'm still surprised and delighted with the people I meet.

"Today, there are great issues that must be addressed - climate change, our economy, human rights, poverty and many others.

"The problems the global community is dealing with now - the deficit, war and poverty - will be dwarfed by climate change, sea-level rise, a warming world and change in agricultural and rainfall patterns.

"What happens when you have nearly forty million people in California and no water? In the old days, the Anasazi just dispersed throughout the Southwest. Now we're 95% urban. So we're definitely not going to put L.A. in a backpack and move to British Columbia. Wake up, global warming is the real deal!

"The question is, how to deal with the future? Scientists, politicians, the business community and religious leaders must work together or we're headed for big trouble.

"I'm still vertical and have most of my marbles. I want to contribute to the dialogue and, hopefully, a better future. Yep, still dreaming here in L.A."

-- Bill Patzert (as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Photos courtesy Bill Patzert

**Jeremy Rosenberg has written articles for JPL's website

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