Yao Tandong on research in the Third Pole

Yao Tandong tells Mike about realizing his long-held dream: working of the Tibetan Plateau, now as director of the Institute for Tibetan Plateau (ITP) Research (and much else besides!). For Tandong, it all began in 1978 when he was initially exposed to Tibetan glaciology. It cannot have been an easy path. Tandong’s parents were minimally educated, and he was among the first cohort of Chinese students to obtain a western-style MS and PhD. He then spent a decade working in France and the US, forging long-running relationships with some of the best-known scientists in the ice coring community.

Tandong recounts the reformation of Chinese science institutions: the purging of staff and institutes, dealing with systemic nepotism, entrenched benefits system. The  ITP arose from the ashes, with funding of about $35 million and now another $250 million for Tibetan Plateau and Third Pole research. The scope is simply astonishing, and yet another indicator of China’s rise to global prominence in big science.

Yao Tadong

Belinda Medlyn on climate-carbon-vegetation interactions

The land biosphere takes up a big chunk of atmospheric CO2 emissions. But how, where, and for how long remains an area of, ahem, active research. Or put another way, there’s a lot we STILL don’t know about how increased CO2 will manifest, or not, as an ongoing increase in the terrestrial uptake of carbon. Belinda Medlyn and her colleagues are hot on the topic, with experiments, theoretical analysis, and swaths of models. Despite, or perhaps because of, the wild complexity of the interactions, the field is fertile ground for this kind of multidisciplinary exploration, and Belinda talks Mike through some of the most compelling topics in the field — all of which are under intense debate (N limitations, anyone?).

Belinda has also worked hard to build her career while having the family life she wanted. For her, this meant extended periods of part-time work while raising her sons, before returning to a full-time position. Belinda’s example shows that — with the right support — one can commit fully to both family and career, especially if maximum effort on both isn’t contemporaneous. For Belinda, the separation of priorities over time was hugely beneficial, and highlights the need for a more flexible attitude to career progression and development.

Credit: Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment

Sergey Gulev’s oceanographic odyssey

Sergey Gulev from Moscow State University grew up in the Soviet Union, forged a career as an oceanographer, and then witnessed the dissolution of much of what he and his colleagues had built. Gone were their four ocean-going ships, and the then-Russian science community was not able to capitalize on the modeling and remote sensing that came to dominate much of oceanography in the late 20th century. Sergey moved to Germany, and could easily have built a career in the West. Instead, he returned to Russia, worked for a pittance, and over many years, worked to rebuild oceanography in Russia.

Sergey Gulev

Carl Wunsch and the rise of modern oceanography

Carl Wunsch is at the heart of many of the major advances in modern physical oceanography. The World Ocean Circulation Experiment, satellite altimetry, acoustic tomography, and Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean: all are hard to imagine without Carl’s involvement. In this extended interview, Carl tells Mike about these and many other aspects of his decades of work in the field. Along the way, we hear tales of growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Stommel’s sprawling legacy, the sometimes intense conflicts within the community, the problems of working in a data-poor field, and the role of personality in making, or stalling, a career. It’s a one-stop history of the field, and a deeply personal insight into how major science questions are conceptualized and addressed.

Carl Wunsch (credit: Helen Hill)

Music: Easy Job by the Dead Rocks. CC BY-SA.

Carolina Vera on the South American monsoon

Carolina Vera from the University of Buenos Aires tells Mike about her work on the South American monsoon. Relative to the Indian and Asian Monsoon, the South American Monsoon is understudied — but equally fascinating. The bulk of the land mass is centered near the equator, amplifying the role of tropical ocean-atmosphere interactions. The Andes run north-south, funneling a jet of moisture to Carolina’s back door. Intense dipoles operate, such that one area experiences drought and heat waves while another — not too far away — experiences flooding. Carolina and her colleagues are now working to build their emerging knowledge into actionable management tools, with real-world implications. The conversation wraps up with a discussion of Carlina’s vast experience in international science, and what seems to work best. The answer: diversity, and not pretending that a North American and European perspective represents a global perspective.

Carolina Vera

Music: San Telmo, by Diego Acco CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Into the tropics with Sarah Kang

Sarah Kang from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology tells Mike about her work to understand the atmospheric and oceanic dynamics that link the extratropics to the tropics. Paleoclimate research has long shown that climate perturbations with strong Northern Hemisphere imprints — like Dansgaard-Oeschger events — are associated with movements of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). But it took a long time for a theoretical understanding to emerge, and Sarah spent much of her PhD at GFDL and postdoc at Lamont probing some of the many mechanisms at work. Recently, work focused on the Southern Ocean seemed to reveal that the tropics might respond fundamentally differently to southern vs. northern forcings. Ongoing work by Sarah and her colleagues, however, is now pointing to a related mechanism, but one that is driven instead by the Southern Ocean’s vast capacity to redistribute heat. Sarah is co-leading the Extratropical-Tropical INteraction model intercomparison project, which should lead to a sharper understanding and perhaps a clearer insight into future changes.

Sarah discusses her experiences navigating a career in Korea: being the only woman out of a faculty of 21; going on sabbatical before getting tenure; the intense focus on metrics in the tenure process; and having a husband who is the only doctor who’s ever taken parental leave at his hospital.

Sarah is the only guest on Forecast who’s (1) gone into precisely the same career as a parent and (2) gotten her PhD from her father’s postdoc advisor (the brilliant Isaac Held)! But it wasn’t because she found her father’s line of work so compelling. It was the lifestyle, the people, and the passion — something that a lot of scientists can doubtless relate to.

 

Jay Famiglietti on GRACE and global hydrology

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.

Photo by Sadie Goff’

Music: SODAR by Scanglobe and Parallel Park by Ziggurat, both CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Around the world with Maisa Rojas

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’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”.

Michael Greenstone on environmental economics … and basketball

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.

Michael Greenstone.

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 reliable 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.

Burning questions with Max Moritz

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.

Max Moritz