NRL’s New Monterey Chief Tackles 9 Questions

08/16/2016 08:45 EDT - 37-16r
Contact: Victor Chen, (202) 767-2541

The Naval Research Laboratory recently named Dr. James Hansen as its next Superintendent for the Marine Meteorology Division based in Monterey, California. Hansen previously was the branch head for the Meteorological Applications Development group in the division.

Dr. Alan Schaum In 2015, Dr. James Hansen received the Arthur S. Flemming Award for his unique research focusing on the science of prediction – using uncertainty estimates to improve human forecasts and influence Navy and DoD courses of action. Pictured at the ceremony, held at George Washington University (GWU), are (l-r): Ben Vinson III, Dean, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at GWU; Dr. Willie E. May, Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology (keynote speaker at the ceremony); Dr. James Hansen, NRL Marine Meteorology Division; and Dr. Kathryn Newcomer, Director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the GWU.

The following Q&A with Dr. Hansen was edited with NRL public affairs.

Q. Okay, we have to get this first question out of the way. You’ve already had a very accomplished career…Rhodes Scholar, MIT professor, captain of your Colorado Buffaloes football team, national champions in 1991, Campbell Trophy winner (the same award for academics, community service, and on-field performance Peyton Manning won)…the list goes on and on. Why the heck are you at NRL?

Dr. Hansen: While at MIT, I took a sabbatical to the NRL Marine Meteorology Division to spend time with some of their world-class scientists. Within a week of arriving I knew that I was going to quit MIT and work at the division. The scientists were (and are) amazing, people in the division are friendly and enjoy one another’s company, and I greatly appreciated the Navy-driven sense of purpose within the lab. The Marine Meteorology Division is the only atmospheric science organization in the United States where your research portfolio can span from absolutely basic research all the way through to operations.

Q. Why didn’t you want to play in the NFL? Are there any parallels between football and your work at NRL?

Dr. Hansen: Ha! My 12 year old son asked me the exact same question just the other day. I was fortunate enough to have to choose between going to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship or taking a shot at the NFL. It really wasn’t a difficult decision. There are many parallels between playing sports at a high level and working at NRL. There are the obvious ones like understanding the value of sacrifice and hard work, how to deal with adversity, how to deal with success, etc.. But for me, the strongest parallel is the joys associated with working together as a team; the tangibles and intangibles that come from true teamwork are things I’ve been striving to recreate ever since I left football, and it’s one of the things that brought me to NRL. One additional parallel I’ve realized since I’ve become Superintendent: as an offensive lineman I got used to running backs and quarterbacks getting all the glory and linemen only getting recognition when they messed up. Superintendent is kind of like that ;)

Dr. Alan Schaum Captain of the University of Colorado football team, national champions in 1991, Campbell Trophy winner and Rhodes scholar, Dr. James Hansen graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1993 with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. In 1998 he went on to receive a doctorate in philosophy (D.Phil.) in atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics from Oxford University, in the United Kingdom, where he developed his thesis on adaptive observations in spatially-extended, nonlinear dynamical systems. In 2006, he joined the NRL Global Modeling Section as a research scientist.

Q. So you’re taking over the marine meteorology division, which has been in Monterey 45 years this year. Why is it important to be here looking at weather, and whose weather models are the best?

Dr. Hansen: The marine meteorology division is co-located with the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Command (FNMOC), the Navy’s operational production center for Numerical Weather Prediction. It is the marine meteorology division’s role to better understand and to build systems to better predict the future evolution of the global and marine atmospheric environment, and the role of FNMOC to run those prediction systems operationally and disseminate the results to the warfighter. Our collaboration is greatly facilitated by our close proximity; there is no substitute for running into someone in the hall (or out in the lineup while surfing) to help build the relationships that enable us to rapidly transition new products and developments to the fleet. One of the great strengths of the division is our ability to effectively transition research to operations.

The key distinguishing characteristics of the Navy’s environmental prediction efforts are our ability to produce information assured forecasts at all classification levels, to provide high-resolution forecast guidance for any location on Earth, and to perform research and model development in direct response to Navy and DOD needs. Should a conflict occur that includes a cyberwarfare component that renders traditional environmental observations unavailable or untrustworthy, our development efforts and ability to utilize classified observations will render our forecast models the best available in the world.

Q. Since you joined NRL in 2006, you’ve done work on several decision-making models, including one for modeling pirate behavior (the Piracy Attack Risk Surface project), been the lead scientist for international programs, named to various committees, boards, and positions including at the National Science Foundation and the American Meteorological Society. What scientific accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

Dr. Hansen: I love being able to see the impact of my science on Navy operators. Building relationships with servicemen and women and then using my skills to find ways to help them do their jobs better has been phenomenally rewarding. That said, my favorite science was probably done early in my career. I was applying nonlinear dynamical theory ideas to atmospheric science problems. Many of the findings from that work are now being corroborated in studies using complex numerical weather prediction models and are impacting operational forecasting.

Q. What’s next for you in your specialty, will you even have time to continue research?

Dr. Hansen: My AO had the IT department remove all scientific computing software from my workstation, so I’m probably out of luck when it comes to doing research of my own. This division has world-class scientists, and they don’t need me muddying the waters in order to be successful. But I will be actively promoting and championing their work, and I intend to spend a lot of time engaging with sponsors and operators to identify and communicate the value, impact, and importance of a strong environmental science research community within the Navy.

Q. Your division already has probably hundreds of scientific collaborations at many levels, both locally as well as nationally and around the world. What are the top three things you want to accomplish during your tenure?

Dr. Hansen: 1) I want to help NRL become a world leader in the area of coupled environmental modeling. Understanding and predicting the coupled atmosphere/ocean/wave/ice/land/aerosol system contains countless difficult and important science problems, and is of extreme importance to US Navy operations. 2) Like so many physical science research organizations, the Marine Meteorology Division would benefit from enhanced efforts to foster diversity, inclusion, and cultural awareness. The division will take continual, deliberate steps to address our shortcomings, with the aim of creating a more diverse and culturally competent organization. 3) The division has been fortunate of late and has had the opportunity to hire a number of excellent young scientists. I hope to build a culture within the division where young scientists are nurtured, where opportunities for mentoring and professional growth are provided, and where the next generation of scientific and Laboratory leaders are created. We will be a magnet for the best and the brightest atmospheric scientists.

Dr. Alan Schaum James Hansen (1993). Team Captain, University of Colorado-Boulder, Buffaloes.

Q. What would you say to someone who might be considering a career at NRL?

Dr. Hansen: Come pay us a visit! As I mentioned earlier, there is nowhere else in the US where you can work on basic atmospheric science questions and on operational implementations at the same time. The people at NRL are wonderful, and our visitors always leave impressed by the culture and collegiality of the division. Finally, working at NRL gives one the opportunity to serve and to do work that directly benefits the warfighter and the country. I am very proud to work here.

Q. How would you characterize our capabilities in marine weather now, and what more could be done for the Navy and Marine Corps?

Dr. Hansen: We do an excellent job providing situational awareness and forecast guidance products for the warfighter. Our ability to characterize the environment through satellite observations – both to produce real-time satellite products and to initialize our models – is state of the science. Our focus on aspects of atmospheric science and weather prediction that are of particular importance to the Navy (e.g. tropical cyclones, surface winds, waves, visibility, etc.) makes us international leaders in many of those areas. However, we can always do better. Many Navy-relevant problems aren’t simply a function of the atmosphere, but rather of the atmosphere, the ocean, the land surface, the waves, the ice, etc.. Anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, surface ship operations, electromagnetic warfare, Marine and special forces operations: all are impacted by the coupled environmental system. Tackling this problem extends well beyond the Marine Meteorology Division. There are many divisions at NRL that must work together to understand and build the coupled modeling and observation systems, and to quantify the impact of the coupled environment on Navy weapons and sensors. In addition, the operational Navy needs to understand the importance and difficulty of the problem, and provide the necessary funding and computing resource.

Q. Why do you think meteorologists get such a bad rap?

Dr. Hansen: You mean aside from the “shoot the messenger” problem? My view is that they have become a victim of their success. Everyone expects them to get the forecast right, they make plans accordingly, and when the forecast misses (which is rare) it has a large impact as a result. I’m the president of my town’s youth baseball and softball league, and we routinely know that rain is in the offing even a week in advance. That’s amazing if you sit and think about it. A week out, the forecaster might be off by a day, or not quite have the amount of rain right, but inevitably the rain shows up and we were able to plan for it. We knew back in December that we were going to have a rainy spring in the Monterey area thanks to El Nino forecasts, and we were able to prepare our fields accordingly. Meteorologists do an amazing job.

Get NRL News: RSS

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory provides the advanced scientific capabilities required to bolster our country's position of global naval leadership. The Laboratory, with a total complement of approximately 2,500 personnel, is located in southwest Washington, D.C., with other major sites at the Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Monterey, Calif. NRL has served the Navy and the nation for over 90 years and continues to advance research further than you can imagine. For more information, visit the NRL website or join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Comment policy: We hope to receive submissions from all viewpoints, but we ask that all participants agree to the Department of Defense Social Media User Agreement. All comments are reviewed before being posted.