Jay Famiglietti from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tells Mike about taking the plunge into using the GRACE gravity-measuring satellites for hydrology research. Keep in mind, this was at a time when hydrology was viewed as noise in the gravity signal, and that Jay was just starting off as an academic with his first graduate student, Matt Rodell. But making this kind of leap — from surface hydrology in Jay’s case — is of course what so often leads to step changes in science. Over the past decade, Jay and his colleagues have revealed the shocking reductions in groundwater in many water stressed parts of the world, including India and the Central Valley. Although perhaps best known for his work with GRACE, Jay is also a noted modeler, and much of his current work focuses on an ambitious data assimilation approach for simulating the real time hydrological state of the western United States at high resolution. And now, Jay is taking another plunge, this time to the University of Saskatchewan, where he’s landed a huge position as Research Chair in Hydrology and Remote Sensing.
Music: SODAR by Scanglobe and Parallel Park by Ziggurat, both CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Maisa Rojas from the University of Chile tells Mike about her work on regional climate modeling, paleoclimate, and the Southern Hemisphere westerlies. The story begins with Maisa’s birth in Chile, but quickly moves on to the family’s dramatic escape from Pinochet’s rebellion and immigration to Germany. Maisa returned to Chile at age 12, and then spent much of her young life traveling and working in the UK, US, and France.
Maisa has played an integral role in recent IPCC activities, and she updates Mike on the many changes in store for AR6, for which she’ll serve at a coordinating lead author for chapter I in Working Group I.
Maisa Rojas, coring a peat bog in Rio Rubens, Southern Patagonia.
Maisa’s story is emblematic of both the personal challenges spawned by political upheavals, the difficulties in securing a permanent position in science, and the ongoing and often hard-to-detect discrimination experienced by women in science. Maisa is now working to build gender equity in climate science and a stronger sense of community, both within Chile and among those working on Southern Hemisphere climate research. It’s a major effort, but as Maisa says, “for complexity you need diversity”.
World-famous economist Michael Greenstone tells Mike about his main professional mission: to apply the tools of economics to reduce human suffering. But that wasn’t always the case. No indeed. For many years, including all of college, Michael’s main goal in life was to have a career in the NBA. Happily for economics, Division III basketball at Swarthmore didn’t immediately translate to the desired outcome, and Michael found his way to natural resource-energy-climate economics via a short stint in labor economics. Now he and his colleagues are pushing forward on an extremely challenging agenda designed to bring economics into the realm of rigorous nature science. To meet the goal, as Michael puts it, a study should have a global analysis, with plausibly causal mechanisms, and consideration of the true range of adaptations that society would bring to bear in the face of climate change. We’re not there yet, but the pathway is clearer than ever before.
Much as Michael assaulted the hoop back in his Swarthmore days, he now destroys Mike’s ideas about what economics is, and could be. Outside the field, economics has, at least in some quarters, a dodgy reputation: toy models with no practical application, ridiculous assumptions (witness the many ‘assume a can opener’ jokes, inability to predict events like the 2008 economic collapse, untestable hypotheses, to name a few. But the field is changing rapidly, due to, finally, the influx of data, controlled experiments, and computational power. Economics now has the power to identify, investigate, and solve major real-world problems. In one project, Michael co-led a team to identify the systemic conflicts of interest at work in Gujarat’s power plant inspections, and devised a novel system that led to a 30% reduction in the notorious atmospheric pollutant PM 2.5.
Yet Michael is not an environmentalist. Instead, he favors applying agnostic cost-benefit analyses to identify the most efficient ways of reducing suffering and increasing well-being. That might involve climate, but it might not. In fact, Michael favors a focus on what he calls the global energy challenge, rather than the climate problem. The two are linked, but ultimately the grand challenge is to provide inexpensive and reliability energy for everyone while minimizing negative health consequences and avoiding disruptive climate change. It’s a difficult-to-construct three-legged stool … but like all three-legged stools, once built, they don’t wobble.
Music: Balkan Quolou by Watcha Clan and Heiser Zibn by The Underscore Orkestra, both CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.
Max Moritz regales Mike with some of the many intricacies of modern fire science. The dominant narrative in the Western US might be “long-term fire suppression is leading to severe fire seasons”. While there is some truth here, the individual fire stories are, inevitably, local. Local land use practices, building codes, vegetation stress, and climate change all conspire to make any one explanation … less than convincing. As Max tells it, we need to accept fire as part of our human system, and move towards a more active role in planning our future co-existence.
Kaitlin Naughten from the University of New South Wales works on one of the most pressing issues facing modern climate science: interactions between the ocean and the vast ice shelves fringing Antarctica. Existentially, this interaction has the potential to largely determine the rate and amount of sea level rise disgorging from the continent. Will it be 20 cm by 2100? Or 15 m by 2500? The atmosphere is a key player, but ice-ocean interactions will remain critical for centuries. To get the big picture right, however, we need models that physically couple ice sheets/shelves with the ocean. This is hard, really hard, on scientific and computer engineering fronts.
For her PhD, Kaitlin Beneath took the plunge into a massive — and successful — model debugging project that identified and fixed a vexing numerical instability involving sea ice production. In her postdoc, soon to start at the British Antarctic Survey, Kaitlin will be working on similarly challenging modeling, this time for the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf.
So, safe to say that Kaitlin excels at identifying and working through major scientific challenges. But she has also had to work through another challenge: a stutter. We talk about the many, and serious, challenges of having a stutter while pursuing a career in science – which inevitably involves a lot of talking. There are many facets to having, and managing a stutter: the triggers, how to give a scientific talk or conduct an interview, making career choices. Maybe the most important point for me is Kaitlin’s suggestion of how best to talk with someone with a stutter. Don’t do any of the things that might occur to you. Don’t try to finish a stutter’s sentence. Don’t fill empty space with empty talk. Wait. Just wait.
I should also say a bit about how I edited my interview with Kaitlin. I edited out umms, errs, and the like. I trimmed sections of the conversation where Kaitlin began one thread of conversation but then went a different way. This is exactly what I do for all guests. But it wasn’t clear how or if to edit Kaitlin’s stutter. If I edited out all the stutter, then it wouldn’t be Kaitlin’s voice, and we both felt this was not the way to go. We discussed other options, and decided to edit out some of the more extended blockages, but to leave others. This way, the listener will have a clear sense of what Kaitlin’s stutter is like, but the interview itself is somewhat compressed. Keep in mind that, when you meet Kaitlin in person, the stutter might be more or less than what you hear in the interview.
I met Sonia Seneviratne from ETH Zürich at a climate conference way back in 2013. This was not long after she served as a coordinating lead author of the now-famous IPCC SREX report, which lit a spark under the field of climate extremes. Sonia tells me the back story of becoming a CLA, the ongoing challenges of quantifying changes in extremes — droughts in particular, and the need to communicate seemingly obvious climate science to a broader audience. We talk through some of the most pressing issues in modern climate science: our chances of staying below 1.5 °C of warming without climate engineering, climate engineering with land-based albedo modifications, and the kinds of societal transformations needed for radical mitigation. And hanging out your laundry in Switzerland. Like climate, it’s complicated.
Speleothems — stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones — are a central tool for reconstructing past hydroclimate variability. But what, really, are they recording? Jessica Oster from Vanderbilt University walks Mike through the long, incredibly long, process of permitting, extracting, transporting, sampling, analyzing, and understanding the isotopic signals encoded in these bedeviling but transporting recorders.
Succeeding in the field requires incredible patience combined with the ability to think deeply about how the sparse but growing network of speleothems, combined with other hydroclimate records, can inform our understanding of past climate dynamics. And progress is happening. For example, Jessica tell Mike how she and her colleagues pulled together a sweeping collection of paleoclimate evidence to reveal how the jet stream contracted and twisted in glacial boundary conditions, rather than moving monolithically south.
One gets the sense that the community is, finally, approaching a broader consensus that speleothems are recording measures of atmospheric circulation and moisture source, not a pure amount signal. Maybe the simpler explanation would have been easier to parse, but the more complex interpretation also points towards the potential for a richer understanding of past climate dynamics in a range of boundary conditions.
Libby Barnes, like essentially no one else on Forecast, wanted to be a professor from age 12. Specifically, a physics professor. And indeed, climate science almost lost Libby to neutrinos. But an instrumentation disaster, and the associated personal mayhem in the research group, made Libby realize that she was geared more for solving a great many problems, not any one particular decade-long quest. Now, Libby is exploring a dizzying array of topics in climate dynamics, and we bore down into the long-running debate on arctic impacts on the mid-latitudes and subseasonal to seasonal prediction. Along the way, Libby tells Mike about her amazingly sensible — and highly intentional — approach to academia and the tenure process.
There’s incessant talk about impostor syndrome among scientists. But paleoclimate modeler Dan Lunt from the University of Bristol actually DOES pretend to be someone he is not. Specifically, Radagast the Brown from Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Samwell Tarly from Martin’s Westeros. Madness? Only if it is mad to spend what must have been a ridiculous amount of time researching and writing papers on The Climate of Middle Earth and The Climate of the world of Game of Thrones. Dan tells Mike what’s behind this unusual outreach work, and some of the surprisingly interesting climate mechanisms at work (annual precession cycles anyone?). The conversation wheels across Dan’s studies at Oxford, the incredible longevity of HadCM3, Earth system sensitivity, EMICs vs. emulators, model intercomparisons, the challenges of working with geologic data, and launching Geoscience Model Development. And finally, the life-long trauma of supporting a mediocre football club.
Andrea Dutton from the University of Florida tells Mike about the many nuances of using corals to reconstruct past sea level. Sounds simple enough: find corals at depth z, date them to year t, and Bob’s your uncle. Yeah … no. Turns out there’s a lot more at play: 3D topography, plasticity in coral’s depth preference, challenging geochemistry, changes in turbidity. The list of complicating factors is long, but Andrea and her colleagues are working incredibly hard to provide better constraints of sea levels during past warm periods — a critical constraint for the models being used to project sea level into the future. On top of all that, Andrea is an outreach superstar and was recently selected as one of Rolling Stones’ 25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More. Professional success doesn’t always come easy, though, and Andrea has had to work through challenges like big publication gaps, divorce, and raising young children during the tenure process.