Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

A Scientist's Life: Drew Lucas

Oceanographer develops technology to study small-scale ocean physics that influence climate

Drew Lucas is an assistant professor with a joint appointment at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of California San Diego. He received a bachelor of arts degree in biology from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. and master’s and PhD degrees from Scripps Oceanography.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

Drew Lucas: I'm an observational oceanographer. My group develops technology to measure the interaction of ocean physics and life in the sea, and interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Upper ocean physical dynamics influence a range of processes including the biogeochemistry of the ocean and the planet, and ocean-atmosphere exchange. Understanding the biogeochemistry of the planet is important for climate change and the global carbon cycle. Air-sea dynamics influence weather forecasting, ship safety at sea, and large-scale precipitation patterns.

It's really exciting to be a faculty member at UC San Diego because everyday I come to work with the possibility of learning something new about the ocean. What really drew me to this science is the ability to make new discoveries through the implementation of technology. What we've learned about the interaction of ocean physics and ocean biology and the ocean's interaction with the atmosphere allows us to make better predictions about the future state of our planet, and especially the ocean, in the context of a changing climate.

en: Describe some of your current projects.

DL: The southwest monsoon influences rainfall over the Asian continent, which impacts a large percentage of the population of Earth. What we know about the prediction of the monsoon is that it is sensitive to the interactions between ocean and atmosphere. With a group of national and international colleagues, we have spent the last few years conducting research on the northern Indian Ocean with Scripps Oceanography research vessels. We use technology developed at Scripps, both shipboard and autonomous, to study the small-scale ocean processes that control ocean and atmosphere exchange. We expect the improvement of the representation of those processes in numerical models will help us provide more accurate forecasts of precipitation patterns and intensity from the southwest monsoon in the future.

Another project we're working on is understanding human impact on coastal water quality in Southern California. We have developed technology to measure how human-influenced land/sea exchange, such as waste-treatment plant discharge or coastal run-off, is interacting with coastal circulation, tides and waves, and how that impacts coastal water quality at the beach. The ocean technology that we developed at Scripps and at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is initially tested in the water just off Scripps Pier, and put to work on local problems early in the life of the new technology.

en: What are some of the main questions in your field?

DL: One of the grand challenges for us as environmental scientists is understanding how the ocean is influencing climate change, influencing the evolution of the atmosphere, and influencing the biogeochemistry of our planet. These dynamics, it turns out, are influenced very strongly by what's happening on surprisingly small scales in space and time in the ocean. That's a part of the ocean that we do not know well, since it is hard to observe.

So how do the processes that are occurring in the near-surface waters influence the atmosphere and influence life in the ocean? This primary question relates directly to our ability to make numerical forecasts of the variability of the planet into the future. And what we've learned is that some of the things that are not explicitly included in those numerical models, some of which happen on small spatial and time scales, still need to be better represented in the models. What we do is we try to collect data from the ocean that allows us to understand these processes and allows us to diagnose more clearly their impact on a global scale.

en: What tools do you use in your research?

DL: Ones we build ourselves! OK, that’s not 100% the case, but we do primarily use tools that were developed at Scripps and UC San Diego. We build, for example, high-powered winched and acoustic systems deployed on oceanographic vessels to measure waves and currents under the ocean’s surface. On the other end of the scale, we use environmental energy to power autonomous vehicles, enabling rapid sampling over prolonged periods without the need for large research platforms. A specific example is our wave-powered platform, the Wirewalker. We are in what might be termed the “second revolution” in observational oceanography. This revolution draws heavily from modern innovation and development like, for example, what we see in cell phones.  Low-power, high-bandwidth microchips, when combined with our expertise in environmental energy and ocean technology development and design, can lead to some pretty exciting stuff. I’m very lucky to work with an exceptional group of academic and engineering colleagues at the Multiscale Ocean Dynamics group here at UC San Diego.

One of the really exciting new aspects of our work is the development of ocean-sensing techniques that use environmental energy. And what that means is that instead of using batteries for prolonged deployments, we attempt to extract energy out of the environment. Examples include solar, wind power, and, for us, ocean waves. We're developing techniques to extract power from ocean waves to provide long-term sampling of important oceanographic variables for coastal water quality monitoring and for open ocean deployments.

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

DL: I came to UC San Diego as a graduate student. I was attracted to Scripps particularly because of its long tradition of oceangoing research and its development of technology to measure the ocean. Interdisciplinary research is a passion of mine and here that’s between the separate disciplines of engineering and oceanography and between what is called physical oceanography – the study of the physics of the sea – and biological oceanography, which is the study of life in the ocean. The intersection of these areas allows for a lot of new discoveries. We've been able at Scripps to maintain active seagoing programs for the last 100 years. I draw from that tradition at Scripps and at UC San Diego in the development of technology and the application of that technology in ocean-going research.

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