Scientist Josh Willis of Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, principal investigator on the Oceans Melting Greenland project, or OMG, wonders what it will take for people to become interested in climate change and reversing its effects.
“There’s enough ice in Greenland to raise sea levels by 25 feet worldwide,” Willis recently told CBS News, adding Greenland lost 11 billion tons of surface ice in just one day last August.
“Now, we don’t think it’ll happen right away, but just how fast it does is something we’re trying to figure out with OMG … We all live with one ocean,” Willis said. “So a billion tons of ice lost here in Greenland means higher sea levels in Florida, California, New York, even as far as Australia.”
The name of the project was intentionally chosen for its acronym’s other well-known meaning. That’s because Willis believes it’s important to get people’s attention before you can start a dialogue with them about what’s happening with Earth’s climate, he told CBS. And a good way to start that conversation, he believes, is through things like commonly used phrases, such as OMG, and comedy.
To that latter end, Willis, spends his days as a scientist at JPL, visiting Greenland for days to a month at a time twice a year. But on the weekends, he’s entertaining as “Climate Elvis,” belting out what he calls “Climate Rock,” or doing improv comedy at a club in Hollywood
“Being a scientist, we’re trying to discover something about the world, and I think being a comedian, you’re trying to discover something about people that makes them laugh,” Willis recently told NBC4 News. Earning a doctorate in oceanography from UC San Diego, the 45-year-old Dallas native graduated in 2014 from the Second City Comedy School in Hollywood.
“I wanted to make global warming funny because I think people will have an easier time relating to it and understanding it if they can have a laugh every now and then,” he said.
The Pasadena Weekly caught up with Willis by phone on Monday, his birthday.
PASADENA WEEKLY: Is there a connection between this massive glacier retreat in Greenland and the growing frequency and intensity of storms hitting the East Coast and the Gulf states?
Really, I would say they are both connected by climate change. The planet is warming up and warmer waters in the tropics means bigger storms, and warmer waters around Greenland means more ice melt. Sometimes these glaciers sit in 3,000 feet of water. The face of the glacier is in direct contact with the ocean, and as it warms the water chips away at the glacier more quickly and it dumps more ice into the ocean than it had before. That process is part of the reason why Greenland is losing ice.
You spend a lot of time flying and dropping probes into the ocean. Besides ocean warmth, what else are you measuring with those probes, what are you finding, and why is that important?
We’re also measuring the saltiness of the water, and that’s important because it helps us understand where the water came from and what its history is. Around Greenland it’s kind of interesting because the water is what I call upside down. The water there is warm at depth and cold on the surface, so you have this layer of cold, fresh water coming out of the Arctic and underneath that there is a layer of warm, salty water, and the difference in saltiness is so big that it overcomes the fact that deep water is warmer. Normally, you would think of the warmer water being higher at the top because it’s lighter, but in fact the saltiness makes it sink down deep. It’s important to go to Greenland and measure this information directly because the water we are looking for is sort of hiding underneath several hundred feet of colder water, and it’s that warm water down deep that melts away the glacier and causes more ice to be dumped into the ocean and creates sea level rise.
How long do you think it will be before coastal cities and communities will be under water?
We’re already seeing the impact of sea level rise over the past 100 years. For example, in San Francisco, what used to be a 100-year storm happens every 10 years now. And all up and down our coastline we are beginning to see the impacts. Some cities are trying to decide whether they are going to try to retreat from the ocean, build sea walls … even in Malibu, even in places that are very wealthy along our coastline are struggling — disappearing beaches and beach erosion, Pacific Coast Highway in many places is threatened by sea level rise. So we are already feeling the impacts. The question is how much faster is it going to get? And that’s what we are trying to figure out with Oceans Melting Greenland. We are trying to figure out how quickly the ice in Greenland can disappear and how much we have to prepare along our coastlines.
It’s not every day scientists actually study comedy and come up with an act. How and why did you create Climate Elvis?
I love performing and I love doing comedy. Several years ago I kind of doubled down on it. I wanted to make global warming funny. And the reason I wanted to do that was so I could reach more people in talking about it. It’s a big thing. It’s a scary thing. But if we can have a laugh about it, I feel we are one step closer to doing something about it, accepting it and finding ways to avoid the biggest impacts, and learning to deal with the ones we can’t avoid. So I created Climate Elvis, partly because I’m a doughy, middle-age guy with sideburns (laughs), but also because I feel he can connect with people in a way that I can’t as a scientist.
How frustrating is it to still hear people calling global warming a hoax?
You have to understand that there is a well-oiled machine trying to convince everybody that it’s not happening, so we are fighting a real battle in terms of misinformation. One of the things that I hope for is that as a scientist and a comedian I can spread a little correct information in a fun way, a way that’s sticky, that people will remember, and help inoculate people against some of the misinformation that’s being generated.”