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.


Antarctic sea ice with Marilyn Raphael

In episode 52 of Forecast, Mike and Marilyn Raphael from the University of California at Los Angeles talk about Antarctic sea ice. Arctic sea ice is, on a relative scale, well understood: observations and models show a massive decline. Antarctic sea ice is weirder. Overall, the extent of Antarctic sea ice is increasing, slightly. But this masks nearby areas with both large increases and decreases. Mike and Marilyn discuss the many mechanisms that might be underlying the interesting and somewhat bedeviling trends, as well as the multitude of ways in which Antarctic sea ice interacts with the broader climate system. We wrap up with a personal discussion of what it’s like being an introvert in science, and some ways to navigate the often-draining interpersonal demands.

Marilyn Raphael

Trace metals and thrash metal with Kaustubh Thirumalai

People find science for all kinds of reasons. Some are born to it, but usually not. Most people find science by bumping into it at a bar, getting help from it while fixing a flat tire, seeing it alight on a leaf, iridescent, or watching it pass by on a subway car going the other way.

Kau aboard the JOIDES Resolution as part of Expedition 353, sailing in the Bay of Bengal in 2015. Photo by Sungham Kim from the Korea Polar research Institute.

For Kaustubh Thirumalai (Kau), the stage was set with burnout on chemical engineering in India coupled with a side job reviewing comics and black metal for a friend’s website. Then, almost randomly searching for an interesting internship, he hooked up with Prosenjit Ghosh, for whom he worked as a local fixer, helping to procure parts for the construction of a mass spec. After that, it was geosciences, full-on: a move to the US, interests in the techniques and concepts of paleoclimate, and an ever-expanding network of collaborators. But still comics and metal! Just now with a splash of trace metals — little bundles of strontium and company, waiting to be discovered.


Intro music is from the album Terminal Redux by Vektor, ranked by Kau as the #1 metal album of 2016. Extro music is Quartz, by Kau himself. All music used by permission — thanks Dave and Kau! Photos are by Kau, used by permission.

The Atlantic’s Rob Meyer on climate journalism

Sometimes papers in Nature are incomprehensible to anyone other than a hard-core specialist. Yes, we use press releases, News & Views, and other reporting to make the leap to our broader readership. But for bringing science to the general public, no amount of Carl Sagans, Neil deGrasse Tysons, or Bill Nyes is going to get the job done. You need journalists. Journalists like Rob Meyer from The Atlantic, who are producing an astonishing amount of great content on topics like the Paris Agreement, fracking regulations, and Antarctica. Rob talks me through his path from music major to twitter procrastinator to Atlantic writer. I flip the usual Nature-related questions around to Rob: how do you select stories, frame them for your audience, and discuss the policy implication? And what is the rationale for the New York Times hiring Bret Stephens? Definitely a story there.

Rob Meyer from The Atlantic

Music: Clips for the intro and extro are the songs 1969 and One Ticket Two Bills by Ending Satellites CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Climate economics with Sol Hsiang

The field of environmental economics in general — and climate economics in particular — is exploding. And my guest on episode 44 of Forecast, Solomon Hsiang from UC Berkeley, is helping to crack open some of the recalcitrant oyster shells of the field. How does climate influence conflict, migration and economic productivity? We talk through some of the big challenges in addressing these topics: the frequent impossibility of running experiments and the accompanying use of quasi-experiments; the growing use of — at last! — data; how incredibly hard it is to disentangle the influence of single factors — like climate — in a complicated human system. In many ways economics is decades behind physical sciences. As Sol explains, we’ve now for the most part forgotten about the initial debates regarding fluid dynamics, but economics is still very much at the phase of figuring out elementary processes. Sometimes this means that the major findings reside in statistical approaches, without clear mechanistic understanding. But Sol and his colleagues are working towards linking microscale human decisions to aggregate societal processes, and it is this sort of understanding that will, and indeed already is, proving important in a policy context.

Credit: Brittany Murphy

Music:  Le train pour Paspébiac, Quand la bière est tirée and Matelot by QuimorucruCC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Jennifer MacKinnon and the swirly things

Most of the big stuff in Earth system science arises from the small stuff. The Keeling curve is the balance between an unknowably large number of microorganisms and the cellular fixation of carbon. Clouds, covering more than half of the planet at any one time, are created at the sub-cm scale. And, increasingly, we are realizing that ocean circulation — once conceived as a sort of monstrous conveyor belt — is instead a motley crew of what Jennifer MacKinnon from the Scripps Institution calls “the swirly things”. Eddies, turbulent billows … “there’s just a ton of animals in the zoo”. Jen talks Mike through the close linkage between observations and theory: it’s hard to conceive of an Antarctic Circumpolar Current composed of a horde of eddies if you can only look over the side of one ship at a time. And the more we observe the ocean, the more interesting it becomes. It now looks, for example, that there may be super-weird interactions between internal waves and mesoscale eddies. More is coming, too, probably from Deep Argo. Yet beyond observations and theory — and as we also heard from Bill Boos — Jen’s kind of science can play a key role in advancing societally-relevant prediction systems. Plus, sabbatical in Palau*, wrestling, and Walter Munk is turning 100 — the party is on!

Music: Springish, All Eventualities and The Everlasting Itch For Things Remote by Gillicuddy. CC BY-NC 3.0.

*In the interview I said that Palau is in the Eastern Pacific. It is, of course, in the Western Pacific.

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.

Gabe Vecchi

Gabe Vecchi is a world-famous atmospheric scientist with a pretty simple attitude to making progress: In order to do something, you need to do it. And Gabe’s done a lot!

Gabe Vecchi. Credit Igor Heifetz.

He was born in Boston but grew up in Venezuela, and witnessed the country’s dissolution from an intellectual magnet for South America into a dystopian nightmare. Going into the interview, I wondered about Gabe’s perspective on the anti-science, inward-looking trends we’re now seeing in the US. Are we headed for the same fate?

At this point, it’s impossible to say. But what I can say is that Gabe’s enthusiasm for science is undiminished by current politics. It was, in fact, kind of refreshing to talk to someone outside of the Bay Area echo chamber in which I live. It’s good to see science (and home renovations and new jobs) remaining at the forefront.

Gabe’s grandparents immigrated to Venezuela from Italy, and he lived there until his early teens. Ending up as a scientists might have been inevitable:

I think having [an] engineer and artist [as parents] … the only natural outcome is to be a scientist

And even though Gabe began knowing, as he says, just about nothing, he went on to make some of the major advances in atmospheric dynamics, tropical cyclones and seasonal prediction over the past couple of decades, including the now-famous modeling of a reduced zonal circulation in the equatorial Pacific.

Working in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, with brilliant colleagues like Isaac Held and Suki Manabe, played a part in Gabe’s success. But still, and as so often seems to be the case, some of the big findings arose almost by accident.

By working on the still-not-fully-cracked nut of estimating changes in hurricane frequency and intensity in a warming climate, Gabe and his colleagues ended up with a modeling system with seasonal skill in regional hurricane prediction. The field is now able to resolve the small scale interactions between hurricanes and the large scale environment. Probably, as Gabe says, they wouldn’t have gotten to seasonal hurricane prediction if they’d been trying to do so:

You can’t see things if you look at them directly

As always with forecasting/prediction, it is easy to get carried away. But Gabe has a healthy skepticism for all sorts of modeling, prediction included:

Skill when applied to the past tends to be higher than skill going forward

Most importantly, one should keep a careful eye out for wild-eyed optimism or irrational exuberance:

The better you feel about it the worse it behaves … the probability of misleading yourself can be very high

Now in a multi-disciplinary department at Princeton, Gabe is looking both forwards and backwards. Forwards, to a closer collaboration with the geochemical proxy community, to unravel some of the many competing hypotheses for modern processes. Backwards, to hopefully develop a state-of-the-art yet simple climate model that could be run in a desktop machine by any interested academic, rather than at a super-computing facility.

Either way, there is endless scope for peeking under the mossy rocks of science, or looking for the structural members that we still need to install:

The things that we already know are much less interesting … if I can find something that we don’t know or that is kind of broken, then that’s great

Today’s music is from the album Anthropomorphic by Sister Sadie’s Foundry. Vocals and acoustic guitar are by geochemist Mark Pagani, who passed away in November 2016. I knew Mark just a little bit, but enough to know that he had a raging passion for science and life. At the time, I didn’t know about his wild musical chops, but they’re impressive for sure. In some ways, Gabe reminds me of Mark, and I thought the music would be a great match for today’s interview. Clips are used with the kind permission of Teresa Pagani and Michael Powers. Songs are Coming up for Air, Dry Land, and Skull and Bones. I encourage you to check out the album — it’s great!

Nerilie Abram

Alternative facts are much in the news. The idea is, of course, ridiculous. Some things are clearly facts. Pizza is delicious; cake makes me happy; serving a white Burgundy at 40 F is an abomination; you should never wear a backpack with a suit.

Much of climate science, however, is not what you would call a hard fact. Yes, we can begin with some facts, following immediately with a suite of questions on quantification and mechanism. Yes, the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass. But what is driving the variations in time and space, are there physical limitations to retreat rates, what are the constraints on ice sheets behavior from paleoclimate, what is the role of firn/cryoconite/black carbon?

Research moves to the open questions, which, to some, provides an opening to say that scientists don’t have the facts. For the immediate questions at hand, it is of course true that we don’t have the answers — that’s why there’s research! Let’s not lose track of the vast amount of knowledge, and the big picture facts, that we do have.

Rant over, at least for now!

Nerilie Abram. Credit: Stuart Hay.

Sometimes I don’t fully grasp the scope of what Forecast guests are doing until I have time to reflect, during editing or while writing the show notes. That was certainly the case with today’s guest, Nerilie Abram. Nerilie has astonishingly broad interests. She works with corals, ice cores, speleothems, and modelers on topics all over the world (literally!) from the past to the future.

Much of our discussion centered around the process by which Nerilie cracks open new topics: framing questions, conducting research, challenging her own ideas, and grinding through the review process. Over time, this is the work that ends up in the fact category. It takes, in addition to mad technique, stubbornness:

Science requires, for all sorts of reasons, people who are going to be able to stick it out in this game, to have that kind of determination … not just the skills

Facts are indeed hard to come by, and proxies can be particularly bedeviling, particularly if one takes the time to actually think about them:

When you’re dealing with indirect proxies, things can change that you’re not expecting

The geochemistry behind proxies is hard enough. Interpreting the data with physically meaningful hypotheses, and testing everything with compelling statistics — is even harder. Nerilie is doing all of this, on topics ranging from tropical ocean-atmosphere-coral interactions, Holocene climate, sea ice proxies, and hemispheric reconstructions.

All of which makes me think of Nerilie as the Danny Meyer of science. What, you’re running a restaurant in a museum now? Or in Nerilie’s case, what, you had a quick talk with Nick Shackleton and now you’re off to the British Antarctic Survey? Smashing!

And the field work. Oh yes, the field work. Plenty of people get into geosciences for the amazing field sites. Nerilie never said that she’s in it for the travel, but it couldn’t have hurt.

Music: Alice in Horror Land by Voodoo Puppets CC BY 3.0; Russki Psycho by The Vivisectors CC BY-NC-ND 4.0; Sleepwalkin’ by The Carmines CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.