Throughout a career spanning 40 years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Craig McLean has been a driving force in building the nation’s commitment to exploring the oceans and increasing our understanding of how changes in ocean activity relate to global warming, severe weather and marine life.
McLean’s extensive list of accomplishments includes launching NOAA’s ocean exploration program; mapping America’s extended continental shelf as well as international waters; championing the establishment of a global ocean observing system that enables better long-term weather forecasting; and working with the private sector to develop new ocean monitoring technology that has helped preserve valuable fisheries and led to better hurricane tracking and more accurate data on carbon emissions.
“Craig has led efforts to advance oceanographic scientific knowledge and discover deep ocean secrets, including new species, historical shipwrecks and undersea mountains,” said Gary Matlock, a deputy assistant administrator for science at NOAA. “His efforts underlie NOAA’s astounding accomplishment of mapping two million square kilometers of ocean and collecting ocean data in the waters of 16 countries and on the high seas.”
McLean’s interest in the Earth’s waters was piqued by his father’s tales of adventures on and love of the high seas during World War II. When he learned about the NOAA Corps, a uniformed service that operates vessels that collect data in the ocean and the air, he saw a way to learn more about the ocean.
“Once I saw what NOAA was about, I thought, ‘This is made for me.’” McLean, who retired on April 1, said. “I get to wear a uniform, be a visible symbol of my country and do something positive for the public.”
During his time at NOAA, McLean focused on ocean sciences and in 2001 helped launch NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Program, becoming its first director.
Up until then, there had not been an organized federal program for ocean exploration, said Jesse Ausubel, who in 2001 was serving on a presidential panel that sketched out a plan for ocean exploration.
“We gave him a 30-page report and he built the program into what it is today,” recalled Ausubel, who is currently a program director at Rockefeller University.
McLean envisioned the program as a “NASA-like exploring agency for the underseas,” and a key to that vision was acquiring a dedicated ocean exploration ship. Even though the exploration program was brand new, McLean persuaded a skeptical Congress to fund a dedicated ship.
“It’s one thing to be the dreamy, starry-eyed strategist coming up with all sorts of clever ideas,” said Richard Spinrad, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. “It’s another to say, ‘Here’s the clever idea and here’s how we’re going to build something.’”
The ship enabled scientists to survey more territory for longer periods of time than they could have if the program had to borrow other NOAA vessels on a short-term basis, thus filling gaps in the understanding of the ocean’s effect on climate, weather and life under the sea.
Throughout his tenure, McLean continued to expand ocean exploration by collaborating with other federal agencies as well as with international partners to map parts of the continental shelf and international waters, and to set up a global observation system.
Spinrad credits McLean with building the framework for the observation systems that are “critical to our ability to forecast weather and climate in the time ranges of a few weeks to a few months, which is worth its weight in gold and platinum for farming, transportation, commerce and so many different fields.”
McLean spent five years negotiating with more than 100 countries to deploy deep-ocean sensors, enabling scientists to gain more information about disruptions in the ocean ecosystem and to make better predictions about the ocean’s future.
“The special sauce Craig brings to the table is the ability to talk with our international partners,” Spinrad said. “He helps them understand the value of putting observing systems out in the oceans.”
McLean also worked with the private sector to develop and deploy NOAA’s first-of-its-kind drone to go into the eye of a hurricane and send back precise readings of wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure and ocean salinity, making weather forecasting more accurate as well as improving predictions about global warming and climate change.
The drones also survey valuable Alaskan fisheries and send back acoustic signals that measure the well-being of the sea life.
“Craig McLean has been an extraordinarily effective and inspiring leader of research related to climate weather and oceans,” Matlock said. “He has contributed significantly to domestic and international collaboration for science and stewardship.”