Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: An ocean lover on the floor, Parker MacCready’s distinctive science dives deeper

University of Washington School of Oceanography professor Parker MacCready. (Photo courtesy of Parker MacCready)

When a series of big snow events set sights on the Puget Sound region earlier this month, traditional weather forecasts were all the talk as people in the path of the storms prepared for what was to come. Parker MacCready, a professor of Oceanography at the University of Washington, is in the forecast business, too, but his focus is on what’s happening beneath the surface of the water.

MacCready and his colleagues at the UW are creators of a new computer model called LiveOcean which is designed to predict conditions three days ahead for the underwater regions of Puget Sound and off the coast of Washington. MacCready — who is our latest Geek of the Week — and his work were profiled by UW News on Feb. 8.

The underwater weather forecasts, as MacCready calls them, rely on such things as marine currents and river discharges to predict water temperature, salinity, oxygen, nitrogen, pH and more, from the surface down to the seafloor. In the UW video below, at left is the surface salinity over the full area of the model, which stretches from southern Oregon to near the tip of Vancouver Island. At right is a close-up of Puget Sound with simulated oil spills in Seattle and Tacoma. The black arrows show where a lightweight fluid would travel over the next three days.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, MacCready’s early hobbies included unicycles, skateboards and hang gliders. His father was Paul MacCready, who gained fame as the “father of human-powered flight.”

“My brothers and I were test pilots for the Gossamer Condor and other airplanes,” MacCready said, adding that he headed to Yale University to major in architecture before returning to California to work at the family business and get a masters degree at Caltech, working on the fluid mechanics of flapping wing propulsion. Read about his “Pogo Foil” here.

“My dad was originally an atmospheric scientist (cloud seeding!) and I didn’t want to follow too closely in his footsteps,” MacCready said when asked why his focus turned from high above the water to down below it. “Also, I just like salt water.”

MacCready met his future wife in Seattle and moved to the city to get his PhD in Physical Oceanography at the UW. LiveOcean is the result of 15 years of work, and was originally developed to predict the impacts of more acidic seawater on the local shellfish industry, according to UW News.

“Sometimes we embed our regional models in global climate models to answer questions like ‘how much will Puget Sound change in 100 years?’” MacCready said. “This is important work, but personally I get more out of just trying to understand the present, and the changes that have been observed to happen over the last 100 years. I think it is quite likely that the Sound will be a few degrees warmer in the future, and this could be trouble for many species like salmon.”

An obvious lover of the Salish Sea, we had to know if MacCready has a favorite spot to dip his toes — anywhere in the Northwest.

“I try to swim in a little tidal inlet in South Puget Sound on Dana Passage every chance I get,” he said. “Very cold water, so I don’t swim for long!”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Parker MacCready:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I study the physics of the ocean, especially in coastal and estuarine places like Puget Sound. As a research tool I build realistic numerical models that work like underwater weather forecasts. In addition to predicting currents they simulate biology and chemistry, and so they can be useful for answering practical problems like where to grow shellfish. I do it because I find the ocean around here beautiful, and math and computers are a way to explore that beauty.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? The water in Puget Sound is constantly being flushed with ocean water that comes up from the deep Pacific. This current is 20 times bigger than all of the rivers flowing into the Sound combined.

Where do you find your inspiration? Kayaking, walking on the beach, and talking to the few colleagues who really understand what I am saying. I also love learning from the people who live around here who use the ocean as a resource.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My computer of course. I do a lot of Python and Bash programming.

Parker MacCready’s home office in Olympia, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Parker MacCready)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Because of the increasingly horrible commute between Olympia and Seattle, I work at home a lot. We live sort of out in the country and my home office is a separate building in the woods. I can actually think there.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Clean out your email Inbox every week. My full thoughts are here.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac — mainly because it works seamlessly with the many large Linux machines I also use.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Odo.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter, as any mega-commuter would say.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Make an interactive video game version of my Puget Sound computer simulation.

I once waited in line for … I hate waiting in lines. I probably just turned around and went home.

Your role models: My thesis advisor, Peter Rhines, because he keeps in close touch with the creative side of exploring the unknown. I also wish I could be as knowledgeable as the historians who make the awesome podcast BackStory.

Greatest game in history: I don’t play games.

Best gadget ever: The SawStop table saw.

First computer: TRS-80 Model 100. From Radio Shack, about 1983. So cool.

Current phone: iPhone X. I like not having that little button you have to press all the time.

Favorite app: Deluxe Moon, followed by Charts & Tides. You have to keep in touch with where the moon is in its elliptical orbit!

Favorite cause: My family works on wildlife conservation. Especially large predators like lions.

Most important technology of 2019: Background software updates.

Most important technology of 2021: I store hundreds of TB of model output on RAID drives. I want it all to fit in my pocket.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Stop what you are doing and write a README.txt file for the last code project you were working on.

Website: UW faculty

Twitter: @pmaccready

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