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Interview with Craig McLean

Assistant Administrator, Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

Why do you think Arctic science, research, and monitoring are important?
The environment in the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth.  These changes are impacting everything from ecosystems to weather to commerce.  The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) is committed to monitoring and understanding these changes so that we can better support the people living in the Arctic as well as coordinate with our partners in NOAA and across all of the government agencies working there.   In the last few years, OAR has made a concerted effort to support sustained observations and monitoring of the Arctic to better understand the drivers of temperatures increases, sea ice loss, changes in ecosystems, and ocean acidification.  One of the major projects we will be working on over the next few years is the Distributed Biological Observatory, which is a change-detection network for ecosystems in critical regions of the Arctic.

What makes NOAA’s Arctic mission unique?
NOAA has an extraordinarily diverse mission in the Arctic, from providing weather and sea ice forecasts to remote communities in northern Alaska to managing the multi-billion dollar fishing industry in the Bering Sea.  In OAR, we fund projects that support many of NOAA’s operational requirements in the Arctic and our OAR scientists conduct groundbreaking research to better understand the Arctic and how changes in environmental conditions will impact people in the north as well as all Americans.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Arctic and how can NOAA respond to them over the next decade?
The single biggest challenge facing the Arctic today is the pace of change.  The environmental transitions that have occurred in the Arctic during the past decade are unprecedented in the historical record.   Because the Arctic is changing so quickly it is very difficult to observe the environment in a way that can be responsive to the needs of residents and stakeholders.  Because getting ships into the Arctic to make observations is very expensive and logistically challenging, OAR has made a sustained commitment to developing new unmanned vehicles that can work in the ocean and the atmosphere to collect measurements across the Arctic year-round.  I see these investments paying off in a real way as we have increased the amount of environmental intelligence gathering we can do in the Arctic significantly.  In 2017, OAR will be sending SailDrones into the Arctic for the first time.  These unmanned vehicles are remotely piloted by our scientists and engineers at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, and they can collect a whole suite of data from temperature, to plankton composition, to carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and the atmosphere.  The truly amazing things about these new platforms is that they can be launched from ports in southern Alaska and sailed through the Bering Strait into the Arctic where they can operate for months at a time before sailing back to a port of our choosing.

Do you have any personal stories to share about the Arctic?

I have been to the Arctic several times and I am always amazed by the resiliency of the people who live and work there.  Last year, I traveled to Barrow, Alaska to
visit an OAR facility where we have been making critical atmospheric measurements for over two decades.  One of the young technicians told me that he has to be careful when he walks between his lab and other buildings because polar bears walk freely through the town and you can often times find yourself face to face with an unwanted
visitor.  I’m glad that I don’t have to look both ways every time I walk out of my office to make sure there is not a polar bear in my path, but I am sure glad that we have dedicated men and woman in OAR who are willing to do this critical work.      

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