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.


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”.

Climate dynamics with Libby Barnes

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.

Libby Barnes

Music: Zopje, The Township Two Step, and HUA by Brazzmatazz are licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License, as is this episode of Forecast.

Abby Swann on plants in the climate system

Abby Swann tells Mike how plants both respond to and affect climate change. Some of this seems obvious: more CO2, more photosynthesis, bigger plants. Maybe, but there’s a lot more to it: nutrient limitations (or lack thereof!), changes in respiration, stomatal conductance downregulation, drought responses, sea ice interactions, atmospheric feedbacks, changes in land cover … the interactions are complex and numerous. With her strong background in both atmospheric sciences and land-atmosphere interactions, Abby is ideally placed to be tackling these issues, and we talk through a lot of them. Abby, like many academics, has had to grapple with discussions surrounding sexual harassment, and we round out the conversation with a hopefully helpful discussion of how to at least frame supportive discussions within a research group.

Abby Swann

Peter Cox’s emergent insights

In Episode 54 of Forecast, Peter Cox from the University of Exeter gives Mike the inside story about how the “emergent constraints” approach is reshaping our ability to wring every last drop of useful information from climate models. It’s a two step process. First, using climate models, establish a relationship between something you care about in the future to something that is mechanistically related and for which we have modern/historical observations. Then, construct a meta-model that is constrained by the models’ varying ability to simulate the observed variable. Bob’s your uncle. It can be more complicated than that, but Peter’s genius is identifying, probing, and polishing simple nuggets of science, many of which end up published in Nature. And speaking of Nature, we kick it off by discussing the benefits of knowing and, let’s just call it, “handling” your editors.

Peter Cox at work.

Into the woods with Julia Pongratz

In episode 53 of Forecast, Mike talks with Julia Pongratz from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology about the role of land cover and land use change in the climate system. Julia began working on the topic with an unbelievable challenge: simulating the impacts of LCLUC over the past millennium. Now her interests encompass geoengineering, climate mitigation and model intercomparisons, with a focus on understanding the ever-complex interactions among biophysical and biogeochemical feedbacks. Also, Julia assures Mike that, unlike in Maine, the ticks aren’t too horrendous in Germany. Probably. At least in the big cities.


Connecting Kevin Anchukaitis

Kevin Anchukaitis from the University of Arizona is probably best known for his work on dendroclimatology, but this is changing quickly. Now, his broader interests in the connections among history, political science, archaeology, statistics, climate modeling, and forward modeling of proxies are increasingly mirrored within the broader field of late Holocene paleoclimate research. Now, it’s possible to bring together this astonishingly wide range of evidence to disentangle, for example, the influence of volcanic eruptions on climate and society. It ends up sounding like a golden age for climate science, if not for the extinct Monteverde golden toad, whose extinction Kevin showed to be due to a fungal disease coupled with natural climate variability. As always, with good science, you have to go where the evidence takes you.

Jana Sillmann and climate extremes

Jana Sillmann has carved out a career working on understanding and predicting climate extremes — heat waves, heavy rainfall, atmospheric rivers. What combination of factors controls the occurrence of extremes, particularly in a changing climate? Jana and Mike hash through the underlying science — including the agonizingly slow pace of model development — and how society is affected by and responds to extremes. Jana’s background and pathway to her current position are equally fascinating: an idyllic childhood in communist East Germany, with mom teaching construction; exchange student in rural North Dakota, hosted by an accordion virtuoso; grad school in the US; realizing that a career with computers and coffee was preferable to field work; chance exposure to an inspirational talk by Mojib Latif; a PhD from the Max Planck in Hamburg; four years in Canada with people like Francis Zwiers; leaving Canada in response to the anti-science politics of the time (sound familiar?); finally, moving to what sounds like a fabulous position at CICERO in Norway, where, remarkably, society actually seems to fully support women in science. And the ideal science environment? A sprinkle of Norwegian funding for individual academics, a bit of German support for postdocs and grad students, and a splash of Canadian IT investment.

Jana Sillmann. Credit: CICERO

Music from the album Encounters by Metastaz CC-BY-NC 4.0. Includes the tracks HashashinVampire, and Girl and Assassin.

Monsoons with Bill Boos

Bill Boos and I have something in common. Neither of us is much of a long-term planner, but we both like to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. For me, this approach led to a switch from academia to editing. For Bill, it led to an in-process move from Yale to UC Berkeley.

Bill’s career had plenty of twists and turns along the way. Namely, we almost lost him to the dark side … a career in financial consulting at Anderson (now Accenture). Happily, that path didn’t prove sufficiently interesting, and Bill landed in a terminal one-year MS program at MIT, where he started his work with Kerry Emanuel. Except it wasn’t so terminal.

Post-graduation, Bill checked out the professional job market, but quickly found that:

The best job that I’ve interviewed for is not as interesting as staying in graduate school

Things started to click with Kerry, and Bill pursued work on fairly theoretical ocean and atmospheric dynamics. But soon after graduation he published a landmark paper suggesting that a strong Indian monsoon can be generated solely by the presence of the Himalayas: no Tibetan Plateau required. I found the paper fascinating when I handled it at Nature, and it certainly stirred things up in the monsoon community.

As I’ve mentioned on the show in the past, monsoons are endlessly vexing: tantalizing but ephemeral teleconnections; busted predictions; monstrous interannual variability; conceptually simple but terribly complex in the details. One approach to disentangling the mess might be, as Bill puts it, to start off with a clear null-hypothesis:

Can we disprove the hypothesis that this year-to-year variability is just random and we’ll never be able to predict it?

Answering the question would inevitably take a renewed focus on observations, a deep dive into reconstructing past variability, and improved dynamical understanding.

One area of low-hanging fruit — or at least fruit that could be reached by a long extension pole, perhaps while teetering at the top of a rickety three-meter wooden ladder, the base of which has long been under assault by termites — is monsoon depressions. These systems, a topic of much research in the 1970s-1980s, don’t look that horrendous in comparison to typhoons, but end up generating some of the most destructive storms. Why? Bill would like to know. Me too.