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Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services

Meet: Chris Paternostro

Oceanographer, Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS)

As the lead oceanographer for the CO-OPS Coastal and Estuarine Circulation Analysis Team, I study the circulation of water in the coastal environment around the nation by deploying current meters and other scientific instruments to measure how, where, and when the ocean is moving.

Chris Paternostro on ship

What do you like most about working at NOS?

This job gives me the opportunity to visit and study many different bodies of water around the United States of America from the warm, slow-moving bays and bayous of the Gulf Coast to the cold, fast-moving sounds and fjords around Alaska. The life, energy, and beauty of America's coasts show me the grandeur and value of the ocean, and how critical safe shipping is to the nation’s economy.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The planning that goes into oceanographic studies is a lot of hard work. Working offshore and in remote locations requires a lot of planning to move all of the equipment there and have everything available to conduct the study. Things need to be thought out and prepared beforehand, from determining where to place the stations and obtaining permits, down to remembering to pack the screws needed to put the equipment together. For a successful study, it’s essential to plan with contingencies in case something goes wrong, because when you place instruments on the bottom of the ocean, a lot of things can go wrong!

What is your educational background?

I have a master's degree in oceanography from Texas A&M University. I spent my college years studying science, math, and computers in Galveston, Texas, and then applied my knowledge while working in chemical and physical oceanography.

What inspired your interest in the ocean and coasts?

When I was 10, my parents returned from a vacation in the Cayman Islands with several books that I readily absorbed. I became fascinated by the power and intricacy of the ocean. I learned more by watching Nova and Jacques Cousteau's TV specials, and joined The Cousteau Society. My experience with the physics and biology of the ocean expanded when I learned to scuba dive at the age of 14. I'm inspired every time I'm around the ocean – and even by ocean data.

How did you end up working at NOAA?

My career started when, as an undergraduate, I worked in a chemical oceanography lab studying trace metals. After I obtained my master’s degree, I worked for the Texas Water Development Board in Austin, conducting circulation studies in the state’s bays. That allowed me to transition into doing similar work for NOAA, on a much larger scale, in the many estuaries around the USA.

What advice do you have for young people wanting a career in the "ocean realm"?

This is a great time to start a career focused on the ocean. At NOAA, I've had the opportunity to work in Alaska – an extremely rich and precious resource whose complexities we are only now beginning to understand. The ocean around Alaska is the most beautiful, productive, and dynamic in the world. I've experienced humpback whales feeding, puffins so full they can't fly, glaciers calving, eight-knot currents, and standing on the deck of a ship below ice-caped mountains with salmon jumping in daylight at midnight.

During these times of climate change, more people moving to the coasts, and increasing overseas shipping, the world needs more people to help understand, navigate, and care for the oceans and coasts.