Peter Griffith: Diving into the Science of the Carbon Cycle

Dr. Peter Griffith serves as Director of NASA’s Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Griffith’s scientific journey began with swimming in lakes as a child, then scuba diving at the Smithsonian Institution, and now he studies Earth’s changing climate with NASA.

Name: Peter Griffith

Title: Director, NASA Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office

Organization: Biosphere Science Laboratory, code 618

What is your official role at Goddard?

I direct NASA’s Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office, which is at the Goddard Biosphere Science Laboratory. We answer to NASA headquarters, we support the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area, and we support various elements of the funded program that flow out of that. We largely support the terrestrial ecology program, but also ocean biology and biogeochemistry, biodiversity, the carbon monitoring system and some applications.

Much of our work consists of supporting field campaigns. These are activities where dozens, sometimes hundreds, of researchers go to incredible parts of the world and do the work on the ground – or in the water – to get a close-up look at what’s happening in critical parts of the planet and combine that fine-grained information with observations. from remote sensing instruments to aircraft and eventually to satellites.

What do you do every day?

One of the really fun things I do is coordinate with our teams that are in the field and the flight crews. We have an airplane, a relatively small twin-engine turboprop, flying in Alaska with an instrument called AVIRIS, a very fancy camera that sees many colors and takes images from it that have many more wavelengths than what your cell phone camera has in him. It’s called an imaging spectrometer. We are flying it to look at vegetation characteristics and methane emissions in Alaska and parts of Canada.

A few months ago I got to go up and spend some time in Fairbanks working with the instrument crew from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the flight crew and fine-tuning when and where we would fly each day. I’m not doing lab work or field work at this point, so a lot of it is coordinating with scientists and engineers to help us go to the right places and measure the right things.

How did your journey to Goddard begin?

I was a kid growing up in the Apollo era, living in my parents’ house on a lake in Central Florida about 50 miles from Cape Canaveral. Much of my childhood consisted of catching alligators in the lake and watching Saturn V rockets take off. It was very exciting.

Being a giant nerd with big, thick glasses, being an astronaut was totally out of the question, I knew that. But that whole swimming in the lake thing eventually led me to be a diver and major in marine biology. As a scientist, I started in the water and then gradually moved to the top of the water, and then eventually I went up into the air and into space, at least with the eyes of the instruments we have on the world. In some ways, I’ve been a carbon cycle scientist since it was cool.

Do you have any cool stories from the field?

Oh boy. We have several 100 investigators who have been funded over the years and probably 100 or more who are involved in one way or another, and I probably credit a lot of them for having the coolest stories, but in my own role I’ve had conversations and consulting with federal, state and local people in Alaska and Canada about where and when we fly our flight instruments, so in the course of that I had the opportunity to talk to First Nations representatives about what their concerns were. It was really interesting for me, a lot of expansion of my knowledge from my narrow view as a scientist. We like to think we know a lot, but in talking with many of our Indigenous partners, I continue to learn that there is a lot that we don’t know and that I don’t know.

One of the great things about this job is that you learn new things all the time. Sometimes it’s about new satellites or new ways to use different types of radar and lidar to observe the planet. That’s certainly a stimulating part of the job, but another really stimulating part of the job is getting to know people and seeing their world and hearing them explain how they see the world through their eyes.

Do you ever miss field work?

That’s a really good question. It’s challenging because there are a lot of sacrifices you make as a field scientist. It can put you very far away from your family, for example. One of the reasons I actually moved into project management was because it gave me a better work-life balance at a time when I had young children.

It was so much fun working at Goddard Space Flight Center. There are still times when—and especially after having to work remotely for a while—I come to campus and see the great, big NASA logo on the side of the High Bay Clean Room building and I’m like, “I can’t believe I’m starting work here. “

Talk to Goddard is a collection of question-and-answer profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of the talented and diverse workforce at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Conversations has been published on average twice a month since May 2011. Read past issues Goddard’s Our People web page..

By Ananya Udaygiri
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Media contact:

Rob Garner

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

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