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


Kaitlin Naughten on ice-ocean interactions

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.

Kaitlin Naughten

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.


Sonia Seneviratne on droughts, extremes, the IPCC … and laundry in Switzerland

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.

Sonia Seneviratne

Music: Lullaby for Democracy CC BY-NC 4.0 and Rotisserie Graveyard CC BY 4.0 by Doctor Turtle.