2020 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Claire L. Parkinson, Ph.D.

Conducted cutting-edge scientific research over four decades documenting changes in the ice covers in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and how they have played a significant role in climate change and adversely affected animal life.

Listen to Claire Parkinson discuss her work:

As scientists worldwide chart the reasons for and the consequences of climate change, they know that one significant factor is melting polar sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. They also know that the melting sea ice has adversely impacted wildlife, led to coastal erosion and the retention of solar radiation.  

These scientific findings have been meticulously documented for more than four decades by NASA’s Claire Parkinson, the climate change senior scientist who pioneered research in satellite data analysis, quantified major changes in the polar sea ice covers and put this information in the context of climate change. 

“Her techniques for examining sea ice from satellites are a gold standard,” said Dennis Andrucyk, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Scientists now recognize polar sea ice as a key piece in the climate puzzle. Her many published results have contributed to today’s environmental awareness.” 

Parkinson’s studies have documented that the Earth has been shedding sea ice at an average rate of 16,800 square miles—an area larger than the state of Maryland—each year for the past four decades.  

Parkinson and her colleagues monitor sea ice change using passive satellite instruments that detect microwaves emitted from the Earth. Previous data collection had relied mostly on visible imagery, which works well during cloudless daylight hours. Microwaves are detectable day or night and in cloudy weather, a distinct advantage in polar regions, which lack sunlight for months at a time. 

“She was a pathfinder, looking at the ice as a reflection of how we are living our lives on this planet,” said James Garvin, chief scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “The impact of her work is hard to put into words. It’s planetary. It’s critical and paradigm shifting.” 

Parkinson’s work has documented, among other findings, that after decades of gradual increases, the sea ice in the Antarctic has begun to diminish. Since 2014, it has been decreasing faster than the sea ice in the Arctic, which has been shrinking since the late 1970s. 

When sea ice melts, it replaces a highly reflective surface with a dark surface, which can absorb 90% of the sunlight reaching it. The more sunlight that is absorbed instead of reflected to space, the greater the tendency for the global system to warm. Parkinson said this greatly affects the polar ecosystem, which includes polar bears, penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses, krill and marine plant life.  

“When I started at NASA,” Parkinson said of her groundbreaking work, “somebody asked me what I was working on? I said, ‘I’m working on sea ice.’ And the response was, ‘what is that an acronym for?’”  

As she and her colleagues produced a continuing stream of results showing major sea ice changes, interest in monitoring polar ice accelerated.   

“The evidence that she’s been able to uncover on the reduction of Arctic sea ice is one of the key things now driving interest in global climate change,” said Ellen Thompson, a senior research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. 

Parkinson’s work has included serving as the project scientist for NASA’s Aqua satellite, which not only provides data on the melting sea ice, but also a range of other subjects, including atmospheric ozone and CO2, clouds, vegetation cover and sea surface temperatures. The Aqua data has been used in numerous practical applications, including weather forecasting and monitoring of forest fires.  

Since becoming project scientist in 1993, nine years before the satellite’s launch, Parkinson has worked closely not just with the Aqua scientists, but also with the engineers responsible for constructing the spacecraft before the launch and the individuals responsible for its operation.   

Parkinson has authored books on satellite observations and climate change, providing coherent narratives on these often-complicated topics. 

“Claire’s accomplishments in climate science and as project scientist for the Aqua satellite are singular and exceptional,” Andrucyk said. They have earned her the unusual distinction of being elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Science as well as to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, he noted. 

“The momentum of the Aqua mission, advances in climate ice data and funding for observing the Earth would never have been done without Parkinson,” Garvin said. “There wouldn’t be a predictive understanding if sea ice went away. We wouldn’t know how the world around us would change.” 

Parkinson said she feels “incredibly privileged” to have worked at NASA for four decades and to be in a leadership position where she can have an impact.  

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to add value to society by making contributions to climate science and to satellite Earth observations,” she said.