At 41, Bill Patzert had established himself as a top research scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, conducting experiments from sea while catching some gnarly waves on the surfboard he kept in his office.
Life was good and then he accepted an offer to help start a team of oceanographers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena in 1983. Many in his field laughed, asking how can you measure the ocean’s patterns at a space agency?
For the next 35 years, Patzert and his team in the JPL Earth Science division did just that, designing satellites that collect never before seen data that revolutionized the way scientists study the oceans and global climate change.
“I would say I am a risk taker. Leaving the safe confines of academia and traditional oceanography to do oceanography from space? The whole thing could’ve blown up on the launch pad,” Patzert said during an interview last week at a restaurant in Sierra Madre, where he lives.
“It is the most revolutionary thing that has happened in climate and ocean science in the past century. It became the biggest transformation in my professional career,” he added.
On Thursday, Patzert will retire. From that day on, he’ll be looking back on a legacy that includes breakthrough research and media appearances that made the words El Niño and Patzert synonymous to the environmentally hip.
Don’t ever tell him his work is over. At age 76, he’s ready to launch Career 2.0.
Patzert ran through a list of future activities, from inhaling the latest mystery novels by Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, to soaking in new cinema at Sundance and riding the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Besides reading, watching movies and travel, he wants to dip his toes into advocacy work. He’s contemplating a run for the State Water Resources Control Board or the Coastal Commission.
“I feel the best part of my career is ahead of me,” he said.
Though outspoken on hot-button issues such as climate change, overpopulation and California water policy, he was not allowed to give his political opinions as long as he worked for JPL. That will change on Thursday, when he turns in his government badge for a megaphone.
“This has been a smashing success, but while I’m still vertical and have most of my marbles, I can go on to some things that will really mold what happens not just to Pasadena and California, but to civilization,” he said, during a photo shoot inside the lab’s Earth Science Center. “I can go unmuzzled.”
The science is the message[hhmc]
Patzert embodies a unique mix of scientist and communicator.
Some of his team’s first work used data from the TOPEX/Poseidon and later the Jason series satellites launched by JPL and the French space agency CNES. These orbiting computers could measure the temperature of the Earth’s oceans better than any scientist standing in a boat.
Patzert began adding up the monthly data dumps and averaging them together. Starting in the early 1990s, he found incremental rises in global sea levels each year. As carbon dioxide emissions rise from the burning of fossil fuels, the heat reaching earth’s surface increases. About 95 percent is absorbed into the oceans. As water is heated, it expands.
“In the last 140 years, the global oceans have risen 9 inches,” he said. “Sea level rise is unequivocal proof of global warming. It is a scientific fact. It is not an opinion,” he stated firmly.
With President Donald Trump calling climate change a hoax started by the Chinese and with Republicans in Congress saying it is not a fact or not attributed to man-made activities, Patzert’s speaking out has become a touchy issue inside JPL.
Yet, he and his team are in agreement with 97 percent or more of the world’s climate scientists. The NASA.gov website lists dozens of organizations which support the phenomenon as fact, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, under the heading: “Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming.”
Of El Niños and weather predictions[hhmc]
Patzert became famous for predicting the 1997-98 El Niño year, which resulted in 31 inches of rain measured in the Los Angeles Civic Center, double the average annual total. The prediction got him a weekly segment on “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.” The Friday night broadcasts solidified the idea to the American people that an El Niño, a warming of the equatorial waters, most likely means wetter winters in the southern United States and dry winters in the nation’s northern tier.
“It went on for three months every Friday night,” he remembered. “That is what made me famous.”
Later, in the early 2000s, Patzert went to the media again, touting his breakthrough research on the movement of warm and cool waters in the Pacific Ocean as playing a big role in predicting wet or dry winters in California. His discovery of a shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation made news in a Sept. 21, 2002 front-page Pasadena Star-News story: “Water shift spells drought” that included Patzert’s prediction of a lengthy drought spell enveloping Southern California for the next 10-20 years.
Droughts have continued since 2000, with some minor aberrations, pretty much until 2016. Many climatologists now say California has entered “a new normal” of less rain in the south and less snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada that feeds the aqueducts serving 20 million thirsty Southern Californians. After these predictions, the media dubbed him “The Prophet of California Climate.”
Patzert, who said he’s given about 10,000 media interviews, was a master at translating technical issues into plain English using catchy phrases. In 2015, he predicted a “Godzilla El Niño” that would bring record rains to Southern California in the 2015-16 winter. He was pretty much in line with other climate predictors, but while Northern California received record rain and snowfall, Southern California received only half the average, rendering El Niño a local no-show.
“Yeah, I’ve stubbed my toes a couple of times. But I never look back. I may have missed a step, but it never knocked me down. My ego is too big,” he said between forkfuls of noodles.
During the state’s water use restrictions between 2011-2016, lawns disappeared and street medians turned brown. However, tiered water pricing and fines for overuse didn’t seem to motivate residents of wealthy areas such as Beverly Hills and Palm Springs to conserve, records show.
Patzert went on CNN and called out Oprah Winfrey for using too much water. He said many others, including some media outlets, did the same. “Rich people are selfish. So while we are fouling our lawns in the San Joaquin Valley, in Westwood, Palos Verdes, Montecito those people are living in rain forests,” he said.
He’s critical of the agriculture industry in California for using too much water and growing crops such as rice and almonds that mostly get exported to other countries and wants to see changes to the way California divvies up water from the Colorado River.
Working class upbringing[hhmc]
Patzert’s poking the status quo can be traced to his father, Rudolph W. Patzert, a sea captain and union organizer. As a teenager, he helped load the ship of Admiral Richard Byrd, the Arctic explorer. He served in the Merchant Marines during World War II dodging torpedoes from German submarines while rescuing refugees.
“I grew up with a sense of adventure. I had an appreciation for books, for the environment and the good values of the working man,” he said.
As a young man, Patzert took a year off from college and hopped a freighter that took him around the world, including Bali, where he learned to surf at age 20.
After living in Long Island, his family moved to Gary, Indiana, where he worked the swing shift in the steel mills during his senior year in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Purdue University in 1964. He went to graduate school in Hawaii, mostly to surf, he said. He completed a Ph.D. in oceanography and later landed the job at Scripps in San Diego County.
Throughout his schooling, he took on odd jobs to pay for tuition. “I even posed nude for an art class at Purdue. I was in a Sears catalog for men’s underwear. That was the highlight of my modeling career,” he said.
In his footsteps[hhmc]
Patzert enjoys mentoring future scientists. He participates in JPL’s internship program with community college students from Pasadena City College and Glendale Community College. “Some of these students have outstanding technical skills and come from pretty modest backgrounds,” he said.
He works collaboratively with NASA’s Sea Level Science Team and Earth Observatory group, as well as scientists in the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. The sea level rise documentation has been a cornerstone in the research of younger scientists, some working under Patzert. That includes NASA JPL climate scientist Josh Willis, who is studying sea level rise near Greenland.
Willis said he’s willing to step up and talk to the media about climate change, for instance.
“Whenever I talk to anyone in the media, I hear his voice in my head, like Obi Wan Kenobi,” Willis joked. “All kidding aside, he is one of the greats at explaining what’s going on. Bill is a great communicator and I’ve tried to learn from him.”
While gazing at a satellite image showing blue, cooler waters at the equator — a La Niña, the opposite of El Niño, forecasting a dry California winter, Patzert launched into media mode perhaps for the last time while talking to a reporter.
“People think early next summer we actually might be flipping back to an El Niño, but I’ll be retired, so who cares,” he said.