Meet Jim Overland
Eyes on the Arctic
Research oceanographer Jim Overland, Ph.D., helps decision-makers understand the science behind climate change and Arctic ecosystems. He is a co-editor of the NOAA Arctic Report Card and has served as the lead for the Arctic Report Card webpage. Overland’s work ranges from sea ice projections to polar bear assessments and to understand how changing conditions in the Arctic will affect people and the resources we depend on.
Why does your research matter?
I keep track of all types of changes in the Arctic, present them in talks and on our website, try to understand their causes, and project into the future. Changes are large in the Arctic, both natural and man-made. The Arctic is a good leading indicator of potential changes in the earth’s climate.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I complain about too much travel, but I really enjoy it. Last month I was north of Norway (Svalbard) for a climate and fisheries conference and then later was in Anchorage for a sea ice forecast planning workshop. I feel like a bee cross-pollinating Arctic science.
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
Fifteen year ago I decided that I needed to focus on one topic -- Arctic climate change -- and I gave up most of my field work. I now work at my desk in Seattle with about one national or international invited talk or conference each month.
What in your lab could you not live without?
My collection of books from early Arctic expeditions. Before computers and emails, scientists had more time to observe their environment. Now we can look back at the changes that have occurred since then.
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
There are no weather balloon atmospheric measurements over the Arctic. This creates major uncertainty on what the extra solar heating in newly sea ice free ocean areas is doing to change current atmospheric wind patterns. With unmanned aircraft NOAA and NASA are working toward fixing this!
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
Classic. Seventh-grade Boy Scout nature merit badge collecting seaweed and visiting Oregon State’s oceanography vessel in Newport, Ore. I left the seaweed in the sun and it burned, so I guess that is why I ended up on the physics side.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
Farthest North by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen about his Arctic expedition. Arctic science is as much about the place as it is about the methods and results.
And how about a personal favorite book?
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Black swans are improbable events that do not follow classic statistics. These ideas greatly change how we interpret the science that we do.
What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
Traveling for conferences rather than for field work.
Do you have an outside hobby?
Building and running small model real-steam locomotives and trains. Hands-on making a model locomotive run is quite different than finishing an article for a science journal.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
Wall Street economist
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
If you had asked me 15 years ago I would have said Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian who drifted across the Arctic Ocean in the 1890s. But completing more historical research, I would now say the Austrian explorer Carl Weyprecht who inspired the first International Polar Year from 1881 to 1884. While Nansen can be called the first Arctic oceanographer, Weyprecht was the first Arctic climate scientist, who said that to understand the causes of forces of Nature, a coordinated experiment was required with simultaneous measurements from many nations.
Overland holds a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and meteorology from New York University and a Master's and Bachelor's in physical oceanography from the University of Washington.