Pull into NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, around 5:00 a.m. and you might catch a glimpse of climatologist Claire Parkinson jogging in to start her work day. She doesn't own a car, and runs the 1.75 miles between work and home twice a day. Stashing her running sneakers on a shelf in her second floor office, she dons black work shoes at a wide L-shaped desk that holds her 27-inch computer monitor.
Parkinson, 63, has two roles at Goddard, where she's worked for nearly 33 years.
Since 1978, she's been researching sea ice using satellite data to examine ice floating in the Arctic and Antarctic. "The computers and the satellite instruments were nowhere as close to the level they are today, but it was such an exciting period here," Parkinson says.
Since April 1993, she's also served as project scientist for the Aqua project, a NASA Earth science satellite mission that launched in May 2002.
Aqua's on-board instruments have continuously beamed down satellite images and measurements from 705 kilometers above Earth. Parkinson's job as project scientist is to act as the link between scientists and management. "If because of costs you have to downsize the mission, the project scientist makes sure that as downsizing is done, the science is preserved," says Parkinson, who's been to both Antarctica and the North Pole, where she traveled by dogsled, as well as to the Bering Sea, where she walked on ice floes.
In her office, a bookcase packed floor to ceiling bears science tomes, including a handful of her own, ranging from a coffee table-style book brimming with satellite images to her 2010 book "Coming Climate Crisis? Consider the Past, Beware the Big Fix," in which she examined some contentious issues surrounding climate change. "I felt I had to say something," she says, especially about new geo-engineering concepts. "We have to think through all these ideas before we take action," says Parkinson.
Parkinson has authored or co-authored some 100 articles and helped create the first two major atlases depicting sea ice cover. In 1989, she published a paper showing that Arctic sea ice had decreased (as seen from space) since the late 1970s. Later, she and four NASA colleagues published a 1999 paper that showed that even with 10 more years of satellite data, Arctic sea ice was diminishing (with minor fluctuations); that same year, a University of Washington group showed that sea ice was thinning. "This combination elicited a lot of press coverage because when you combine those two, people realized that this could be a significant climate change indicator," says Parkinson.
Now, she and many others are looking at reasons why sea ice is melting — including a 'positive feedback' cycle where growing water surface area now absorbs the sun's radiation and causes even more melting.
Parkinson, grew up in Long Island, New York, and central Vermont, later earning a bachelor's in math at Wellesley College in 1970.
"I realized my work was theoretical, and as much as I loved it I needed to know how it might be used," says Parkinson, who decided to shift to science. Intrigued by Antarctica, Parkinson sought out the Institute for Polar Studies at Ohio State University, where she got to travel to the bottom of the world.
She was the only woman on the expedition to Deception Island, just off the Antarctic mainland, to measure ice flow back into a volcanic crater following an eruption a few years earlier. The cold wasn't a problem for Parkinson, whose visit fell in the Antarctic summer: "The temperatures were close to the freezing point and hence far warmer than temperatures I had experienced during Vermont winters," recalled Parkinson.
Although grateful for the experience, she wasn't using her first passion: math. So when atmospheric researcher Warren Washington from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, gave a seminar on global climate that included general circulation models, Parkinson was intrigued.
She ended up spending her summer at the Boulder center starting a sea ice model, which later became her Ph.D. dissertation. Toward the end of her dissertation work, she met a NASA contact interested in her work. "Immediately, it was my first choice to work for NASA," she says.
Besides running, Parkinson is a recreational swimmer and won bronze medals at the U.S. Nationals of the Senior Olympics in both 2001 and 2003, first for the 200-yard backstroke and later for the 100-yard backstroke; in 2001, she broke the Maryland age-group record in the 200-yard event. "I'm not a serious swimmer," says a humble Parkinson, "but I do feel it's good exercise."
For her other passion, Parkinson transforms herself into another kind of researcher: science historian. "I find it fascinating how humans are able to figure out things," she says.
One topic that hooked her was how humans discovered that the Earth was revolving around the sun. It's a fact that's not intuitively obvious, Parkinson explains. She shares her interest through published writing, which includes a 576-page history of western science from 1202 to 1930. She says, "In science, if you don't pay attention to the past, you'll repeat the same mistakes."