Scott St. George on tree rings

Scott St. George
Scott St. George

Tree rings are one of the key tools in paleoclimate research, and might seem like nothing more than big, woody thermometers. But tree-ring science is ever evolving, constantly debated, and — while it has answered some major questions — still grapples with making the connection to broader climate questions.

Paleoclimatologist Scott St. George from the University of Minnesota works on both the guts of tree rings as climate recorders, and their linkage to the wider climate system. Doing so, however, didn’t always seem like a great idea, and Scott experienced some initial horror at having entered the field …

I've just done a graduate degree in tree rings ... oh god ... what have I done to myself

The despair didn’t last long, and Scott was soon making major advances in using tree rings to research past floods. We talk about these early discoveries, the furor over the missing ring debate, and how the field is now trying to explicitly link tree rings to variations in atmospheric circulation.

The tentacles of Scott’s ideas, however, extend far beyond a narrow interest in tree-ring science, and we have a craic about a couple. Scott and I both share the perception that scientific talks could be … improved somewhat. Mine included! I think presentations can be a sort of intellectual defense system. As Scott puts it:

We want to build this wall in front of us, of our data, our slides, all the points we want to make ... and nobody really wants to get all that detail at once

But unlike me, Scott has taken the time to think about scientific presentations, what tends to go wrong, and how we can all craft a more meaningful talk … oftentimes by talking less, and especially by having some empathy for your audience. You don’t have to get it all done at once:

A presentation is like the opening statement to an ongoing conversation

Scott’s website is a great resource for ideas on how to streamline and hone presentations, and he has a veritable treasure-chest of excellent and thought-provoking graphics.

During the course of teaching a monstrously huge undergrad class, Scott grew frustrated with presenting the standard NASA GISS graph of industrial era climate change, and had long thought that there must be a better way. Ultimately, he was able to convince undergrad Dan Crawford to translate the graph into music. The results spawned a pretty incredible level of interest, and show that there’s a real interest in presenting climate science in ways that make sense to and connect with people.

Science and geopolitics have always been intermixed, sometimes to great effect, other times less so. Witness the recent CSIRO debacle. Scott began his career in the Geological Survey of Canada during a time of interest in climate science, but once the Harper administration was in full suppress-scientists mode, Scott new he’d have to look for other options to pursue his long-term interests. For Scott, this meant leaving Canada and moving to Minnesota. A loss for Canada, but I’m glad that Scott’s found his way, now to a tenured academic position at a great university.


Music: Organ Grinder Swing by ChēēZ π CC BY-NC-SA 4.0; Planetary Bands, Warming World by Daniel Crawford CC BY-NC 4.0; Oh! By Jingo! by All-Star Trio Public Domain Mark 1.0.

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