Tag Archives: writing

Lab Notes of a Physical Oceanographer

I go to sea to learn about oceans, glaciers, weather, and climate. Despite dramatic photos of exciting field work, those action-packed scenes or serene nature shots of beauty and violence are misleading. Most of my time is spent sitting an a desk in a spacious office with books, papers, telephone, and most important of all, my computers.

Most of my time is spent writing. The writing is varied and ranges from illustrated essays on IcySeas.org to computer code. Add technical writing of research proposals, papers, and reviews for funding agencies and scientific journals. My screen rarely looks like what is shown above with the beautiful LandSat image of 79N Glacier as a screen-saver, it actually looks like this

Picture 2

The blog-writing window is open on the right while a Fortran computer code is in the top left. The code processes temperature, salinity, and pressure data from Petermann Glacier. When the code is run in the bottom-left window, it produces numbers. In this specific case, the numbers are from the only profile of temperature and salinity that exists from Petermann Glacier. Koni Steffen collected the data in 2002. Columns are depths that start at -68 (meters), salinity at 33.774 (no units, think of this as grams per kilogram), temperature at -1.885 (degrees centigrade), and the last column is the density anomaly These numbers are better presented as a graph:

Koni2002raw

Notice that temperature and salinity start only at -68 meters. This is because the ice at this location was about 68-m thick. The Big Ben clock in London is about 96-m high, but this piece if Petermann was chosen because it was less hard to drill through 2/3 of Big Ben’s height when compared to drilling through the glacier ice a mile away where the ice is thicker than the Empire State Building in New York; but I digress.

The profile above reveals a pattern we find almost anywhere in deeper Arctic Waters: Temperature increases with depth. Under the ice at 68-m depth, water is at its freezing point. As you move down the water towards the bottom, salinity increases and so does temperature. It is still cold, about +0.2 degrees Celsius, but this is heat from the North Atlantic Ocean that for perhaps 20-50 years circled all the way around the Arctic Ocean from northern Norway, past Siberia, past Alaska, past Canada to reach this spot of Greenland. While this appears marvelous, and it is, this is NOT what gets a physical oceanographer excited, but this does:

Koni2002Gade

It is the same data, but I did some reading, physics, algebra and code-writing in that order. First, instead of temperature, the blue line shows the difference between temperature T and the temperature Tf above the freezing. The difference T-Tf relates to the amount of heat available to melt the ice somewhere. The black line is the real killer, though. It combines salinity and temperature observations to reveal where the glacier water resides at this location that was melted somewhere else. Without going into the physical details, glacier meltwater is present where the black line touches zero (the so-called Gade-line, so named after a Swedish oceanographer who proposed its use in 1979). This happens at a depth from about 280-m to 500-m depth. This means that the glacier is NOT melting where it is as thin as Big Ben, but instead where it is as thick as the Empire State Building. So this is where we will need to place our instruments.

Proving my initial point, I spent two hours of fun writing this blog. I now will have to focus on more technical writing to pay the many bills of sea-going research. These “lab-notes” also serve as a document to raise $10,845 to install instruments this summer through Petermann Gletscher, have a look and give a little, if you can at

https://experiment.com/projects/ocean-warming-under-a-greenland-glacier

Science Writing: George Orwell and Richard Garvine

How to write, read, and review as part of large science teams when millions of dollars are at stake? Writing and reviewing science projects for the National Aeronautical and Space Agency and the National Science Foundation, I came up with a list of 6 loose rules that make for good science proposal writing:

1. Think about your audience, as the message is conveyed best, if the reading is fun;
2. Avoid technical detail, cite the peer-reviewed paper instead;
3. Present and explain the big picture concisely and accurately in engaging ways;
4. Less is more. Focus on the why, not the how;
5. Avoid shady ambiguity, convoluted arguments, and incomplete explanations;
6. If it can’t be said simply, don’t say it.

This list then reminded me of a short essay that George Orwell wrote in 1946 titled “Politics and the English Language.” It concludes with these 6 rules:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I read the essay in the spring of 1989 when I spent much time at sea with Richard Garvine. Rich was my PhD advisor and he probably suggested this essay to me, his German graduate student with poor writing skills. Rich taught me both science and writing. I miss him.

Richard Garvine in his office at the University of Delaware in the 1990ies.