A Conversation With Dawn Wright, Chief Scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute

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The sea floor is the last frontier on Earth. Its environment is extreme, with water pressures that could crush but the strongest of submersibles, and its geography is little understood. 


In her professional career, Dawn Wright, chief scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, has mapped what lies beneath and uses that knowledge to influence sustainable coastline designs. In her research, she has conducted fieldwork in some of the most geologically active regions of the sea floor, and has worked in Alvin, the deep-sea submersible involved in exploring the Titanic's wreckage. Here, she talks about the challenges of mapping this treacherous environment, and why that information is pertinent to those of us on land.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I usually say that I make maps of the ocean floor to unlock the buried treasure of scientific insight, so that we can understand how that part of the Earth works, and hopefully how we can better protect it. I've been doing this work as a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University, but have just taken a leave of absence to serve as Chief Scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, the world's largest geographic information systems (GIS) company.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

I think the concept of "geodesign" is going to have a huge impact on sustainability. This is the use of GIS to understand not only how the Earth works but how the Earth should look, as affected by humans. The mapping and analysis technology of GIS helps one to leverage geographic information and scientific modeling so that future designs for urban areas, watersheds, protected areas and other conservation sites, and the like more closely follow natural systems and result in less harmful impacts on wetlands, habitats. This type of design in geographic space and using spatial analysis is going to continue to make a huge impact.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Mapping can be extremely difficult, and takes high quality data and scientific knowledge to create a map that tells as much of the story as possible. In terms of mapping the ocean many still don't understand that the majority of it is unmapped at the highest levels of detail that we need in order to sustain and protect it. This is most definitely the case below the surface of the oceans, i.e., the waters below the surface and the terrain along the bottom.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I think social networks and other kinds of digital technologies that do put power in the hands of everyday citizens, for so-called citizen science and participatory sustainability projects will make great impacts.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The use of the word "sustainability" without realizing that not one size fits all.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

As a doctoral student I became fascinated with fractal geometry as a way not only to simulate the structure of the seafloor in map form but as a new kind of numerical index to indicate the Earth process that formed that structure (the process that created the pattern). It was a bit ahead of its time nearly 20 years ago and resulted in a dead end at that time, but may still have potential.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Robert Ballard (marine geologist but later discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic); Don Walsh (oceanographer, explorer, and marine policy specialist, co-diver in the Trieste w/Jacques Piccard to the deepest spot in the oceans); Marie Tharp (geologist and ocean cartographer who was the first to map details of the ocean floor on a global scale, which aided in the eventual acceptance of the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift)

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I considered being an astronaut or a forester.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Twitter has really emerged for me as a valuable tool, as so many other scientists, organizations, and state/federal agencies are on Twitter too. So it's a really great way to keep up with the latest, as well as to pass on valuable info. hot off the presses.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Actually, not just one song but the movie soundtracks from Tron: Legacy, The Social Network, and Contagion.
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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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