An abiding curiosity, fostered by an EAPS mentor, inspired John Carlson to become a prominent champion for climate research at MIT.
After visiting nearly 80 countries, including a January excursion to Antarctica with the MIT Alumni Travel Program, John Carlson might find it hard to be impressed by new landscapes—but a trip to the North Pole this summer captured his attention in a whole new way.
“It was the most unusual, fascinating, riveting experience I’ve had,” Carlson said, reflecting on his June trip aboard the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker 50 Years of Victory. “I wish I could describe it better, the sense of nothingness. You look out and the sun never sets, you’re looking at a sky that goes somewhere from bluebird deep blue to a washed-out silver gray, and you’re surrounded by ice. And that’s it. And as you go deeper and deeper into the Arctic Circle toward the pole, you realize just how alone you really are.”
While only the 113th ship to have made it to the North Pole in history, the vessel was also the first to bring people to the North Pole on the actual summer solstice—and the third-earliest ship ever to arrive, a sure result of the thinning of the ice brought on by climate change.
Climate science has been a lifelong interest for Carlson. As a graduate student at MIT, he studied meteorology and was mentored by Professor Edward Lorenz—the founder of chaos theory, an early contributor to the study of theoretical climate science, and the namesake of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences climate think tank, the Lorenz Center. Carlson, now an emerging-markets portfolio manager at Fidelity, was deeply influenced by Lorenz and never lost his fascination with meteorology, prompting his endowment of the John Carlson Lecture, the Lorenz Center’s annual public outreach event which invites global scientific leaders to speak about innovative climate research (see below). Motivated by the chance to encourage curiosity-driven science and to honor his mentor, Carlson has said, “My primary goal in endowing the lecture series is to raise awareness about climate. I hope to be a catalyst for others to invest in climate science research at MIT.”
Carlson’s considerable contributions to EAPS and the future of climate science are growing beyond the lecture series. He has recently been invited to join the EAPS Visiting Committee, enabling him to have a direct hand in guiding EAPS academic and research efforts in the years to come, helping to maintain the department’s reputation for cross-disciplinary, thought-leading results.
Underscoring the need for pioneering research into climate change and its far-reaching impacts, Carlson’s polar trip brought an unanticipated side effect of climate change into focus. Shipboard lectures on wildlife, glaciology, and climate gave perspective on the landscapes and earth systems passengers were witnessing, but the melting of the northern ice caps also brings a literal new landscape for fishing, mineral, and oil rights in the area. One example is Russia’s controversial renewed claim on 436,000 square miles of Arctic territory, although no geopolitical tensions were felt aboard the 50 Years of Victory.
“The Russians take the conservation and protection of the Arctic very, very seriously. When we got off at some of the islands on the way back, they were very careful in how many people were off the ship at any one time, where we walked and that nothing was left behind,” Carlson said.
“The love of the sea, the Arctic, and the environment is something shared by all of us whether you’re Russian, Chinese or American...Everyone came away feeling more in touch with what’s really happening in the Arctic,” he said.
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