Tickling the Ivories and Tackling the Pacific

Lynne Talley feels equally comfort-able at the keyboard of a piano or a computer.

As a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), Talley has played a major role in orchestrating international experiments to probe the world’s oceans and has served as chief scientist on many research cruises during the past 20 years. After majoring in music and physics at Oberlin College, Talley enrolled in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in 1977. In Woods Hole, she didn’t just pursue the graduate student grind; she also practiced and performed her second love: music.

“There’s a big correlation between music and physics,” Talley said in her office in La Jolla, CA. “And Woods Hole was a wonderful place for music.”

Talley recalls the summer concert series at the Marine Biological Laboratory, where she gave solo piano recitals and teamed with Olivann Hobbie and MBL biologist Jelle Atema for piano/flute duets.

“It’s fun to do, but there’s also lots of precision and counting,” said Talley, who read music at age six and studied at a German music conservatory after college. “I found it tremendously important as an emotional outlet. It’s abstract, but you can emote while you do it, which you certainly can’t do while writing your theories.”

Talley worked with WHOI scientists Michael McCartney and Joseph Pedlosky, completing a thesis on the instability of large-scale currents, such as the Gulf Stream, and publishing several papers about water properties of the North Atlantic. She was a postdoc at Oregon State University before she became an assistant research oceanographer at SIO in 1984 and is now professor of oceanography.

Since 1987, she has helped lead the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, a multi-national effort to describe ocean circulation in every ocean except the Arctic and Mediterranean Sea. The ultimate goal of WOCE, which ended fieldwork in 1998, is to improve circulation models, leading to better long-term climate prediction.

Several hundred scientists have been involved in the project. Talley co-wrote plans to study the Pacific and Indian Oceans and co-chaired several high-ranking WOCE committees. The door to her office is plastered with maps of WOCE ship tracks crisscrossing five oceans.

“In the North Atlantic, I thought I was looking at a big problem, but with WOCE you have to change your mind-set,” Talley said. “Maybe we really can look at the whole world and learn how all the oceans are connected.”

Richard Lambert, director of the National Science Foundation’s physical oceanography program and the person responsible for government funding of WOCE, said that Talley is a “big-idea” person whose insights were key to the worldwide experiment’s success.

After years of collecting data, researchers like Talley are now analyzing and interpreting them. Talley is working with Joint Program graduates around the world—John Toole ‘80, Gregory Johnson ‘85, Susan Wijffels ‘93, and Paul Robbins ‘97—on the circulation of the entire Pacific Ocean. She herself is responsible for making an atlas of 13 different kinds of water measurements in the Pacific. The challenge for physical oceanographers is to continue to unravel the role that the ocean’s circulation plays in governing short-term climate changes such as El Niño, as well as long-term trends, she said.

In the meantime, Talley went to sea again aboard SIO’s R/V Revelle last summer to study the deep-water currents of the little-explored Sea of Japan. On this mission, there were no guarantees. Talley and Revelle were barred from Russian territorial waters, which are off-limits to foreigners. So she took measurements in Japanese waters along with a crew of Russian scientists for three weeks. Then she transferred US scientific equipment to a Russian research vessel in an effort to obtain the information she needs to understand how and where the region’s deep water is formed.

It wasn’t an ideal situation, but science isn’t immune from politics. In fact, North Korea won’t allow any scientific missions in its waters. Talley said the deep convection layer she is looking for may come from the North Korean side of the Sea of Japan, “but we’ll have to infer it,” she said. Understanding the deep-water dynamics of an enclosed ocean basin such as the Sea of Japan will yield insights into the development of larger basins, such as the North Atlantic, she explained.

Talley laughed when asked if she likes going to sea. She’d rather be at home with her nine-year-old son Max and playing the piano, something she does every Sunday morning at her Unitarian church and at local amateur contests.

“I’m not an oceanographer because I like going to sea,” she admitted. “I’m an oceanographer because I like physics.”

—Eric Niiler

Originally published: March 1, 2000