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Claire L. Parkinson

photo of Claire L. Parkinson

Dr. Claire L. Parkinson is a climate scientist world-renowned for her work on sea ice, satellite observations, and climate change. She was drawn to polar research because of the Antarctic Treaty, which preserves an entire continent "for peaceful purposes only," and became one of the earliest women to conduct field work in Antarctica when, as a graduate student, she participated on an otherwise all-male Ohio State University expedition in 1973 - 1974. For her dissertation, she developed the first computer model of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice incorporating both sea ice dynamics and thermodynamics, before joining NASA and becoming an early expert in analyzing satellite data.

Claire Parkinson was born in 1948 on Long Island and moved to Montpelier, Vermont, in 1960. She earned her B.A. in Mathematics at Wellesley College in 1970, then tutored delinquent teenagers in Burlington, Vermont, before entering graduate school at Ohio State, where she earned her Ph.D. in Geography/Climatology in 1977.

Dr. Parkinson moved to Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1978, and has lived in Greenbelt for the past 41 years, working as a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Her career at NASA began in a small group tackling the problem of determining sea ice information from satellite data. The group published the first atlas of Antarctic sea ice from satellite data in 1983, after which Dr. Parkinson assumed the leadership role in producing the corresponding atlas for Arctic sea ice, published in 1987. Since then, she has used the satellite data to determine and quantify changes in the sea ice covers of both the Arctic and the Antarctic since the 1970s. Dr. Parkinson authored a 1985 book on the history of science, a 1997 book on examining the Earth with satellite imagery, and a 2010 book summarizing 4.6 billion years of climate change and detailing her concerns regarding potentially dangerous geoengineering proposals. She has also coauthored several additional books, including a textbook on climate modeling.

Since May 1993, Dr. Parkinson has additionally served as Project Scientist for the Earth-observing Aqua satellite, which launched in May 2002 and since then has been transmitting data regarding Earth's atmosphere, oceans, land, and ice. The Aqua data have been used in thousands of publications by scientists worldwide and in numerous practical applications, including weather forecasting and forest fire monitoring.

Throughout her career, Dr. Parkinson has engaged in outreach to children and the public, and since childhood she has been involved in issues of civil rights. She was an invited speaker at a Martin Luther King Day commemoration in Vermont in 2007 and volunteered full-time for 38 days in the recovery efforts following a sequence of devastating hurricanes in 2017. Her NASA outreach includes leading a collaboration between NASA and the Maryland Women's Heritage Center that produced a book and six posters on Women of Goddard: Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Dr. Parkinson has been elected to the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, American Philosophical Society, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"A major goal for humanity should be to give everyone - irrespective of gender, race, disability, or any other characteristic - a fair chance to reach his or her potential. Progress is being made, but there is still a very long ways to go."

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2020.

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