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Watson Lecture on June 29: Josh Willis on the Grand Sustainability Challenge of Tackling Sea Level Rise

Published on Jun 26, 2022

Josh Willis

On Wednesday, June 29, at 5 p.m. PDT, Josh Willis, climate scientist at JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, will conclude the 2021–22 Watson Lecture season with “Tackling Sea Level Rise from Above and Below.”

Global sea level rise is one of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century, and Willis and his team study this urgent problem from above and below. He is the NASA lead for the Jason and Sentinel-6 satellite missions, which measure the planet’s sea levels from space. Meanwhile, he led an airborne mission called Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG), which just completed a six-year mission, where it measured changing water temperatures on the continental shelf surrounding Greenland and determined how marine glaciers reacted to the presence of warm, salty water from the Atlantic in order to better predict the rising seas of the future. In this lecture, Willis will discuss how these missions provide revolutionary data for modeling ocean and ice interactions and lead to improved estimates of global sea level rise.

“[A]s you start to look at the oceans and ask the question, What’s causing them to rise quickly?, one of the biggest contributors is Greenland,” Willis said in an interview with Caltech. “It turns out there’s enough ice in Greenland, if it all melted today, to raise sea levels by 25 feet, which is an enormous amount. It would be devastating all around the planet. Greenland is really a key to unlocking what’s going to happen to sea level rise in the future, and our mission, Oceans Melting Greenland, was trying to figure out how much are the oceans melting away at the ice from below.”

Willis is the lead NASA scientist for the Jason and Sentinel-6 satellite missions as well as the lead scientist for OMG. He has studied the rising oceans for his entire scientific career but recently has also started studying comedy as a means of communicating with the public about climate change.

“About 10 years ago now, about the time I started writing the proposal for OMG, I started taking improv classes and doing improv,” he said. “I graduated from the Second City Conservatory here in Hollywood and have been doing improv ever since. Sometimes, I like to make little funny videos and things like that. I’ve been known to sing an Elvis song about climate change. Google ‘Climate Elvis‘ if you want to find it.”

The 2021–2022 Watson Lectures are free, open to the public, and presented virtually one Wednesday each month of the series at 5 p.m. at This lecture will also be open to the public for in-person attendance in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus.

Since 1922, the Earnest C. Watson Lectures have brought Caltech’s most innovative scientific research to the public. The series is named for Earnest C. Watson, a professor of physics at Caltech from 1919 until 1959. Spotlighting a small selection of the pioneering research Caltech’s professors are currently conducting, the Watson Lectures are geared toward a general audience as part of the Institute’s ongoing commitment to benefiting the local community through education and outreach.

The Watson Lectures are part of the Caltech Signature Lecture Series, which offers a deep dive into the groundbreaking research and scientific breakthroughs at Caltech and JPL. For information, please visit

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