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.

Noah Diffenbaugh

I like doing Forecast for a lot of reasons. I get my fingers into the entrails of science in a way that isn’t really possible from reading submissions. I hear some appalling stories, off the record. I’m caught up in the enthusiasm of scientists for what they’re dreaming of discovering in the next decade. But, maybe most of all, I get to ask all kinds of impertinent questions that would rouse the ghost of John Maddox if done during the course of normal editor-scientist interactions.

Noah Diffenbaugh. Credit: Linda Cicero, Stanford University.

And so it is with my interview with Noah Diffenbaugh, one of the leading investigators of extreme events in a changing climate, and a friend for over 10 years. Getting to know someone in science, especially after grad school, is weird, as huge chunks of their being remain out of view. Indeed I am often reminded of the blind men and an elephant. Perhaps before I only saw Noah’s enormous feet and extravagant tail, without realizing his true self. I am not at all sure that I do now, but at least it is clear he is a pachyderm.

Noah grew up at the Mount Madonna Center, one of the intentional communities that erupted like mushrooms from the rains of the 1960s’ spiritual and yoga movements. Most withered under divisiveness, absolutism, and isolationism. Mount Madonna, though, continues to thrive. Yes, it was, and is, a yoga and communal life center. But it is not a cult. Instead, it is open to the outside world, and has grown to support a renowned school and series of cultural events.

Mount Madonna’s sense of openness and inquiry are a clear feature of Noah’s work and collaborations. Our work together, on topics like wine and climate, grew from a short chat in an elevator during an NCAR young scientist boot camp. In general, because it’s impossible to tell which collaborations are going to work out, Noah’s default is yes.

Saying yes has clearly worked for Noah. He spent time at Purdue and is now tenured at Stanford, one of the premier universities in the world (and a very tough place to get tenure). Noah’s involved in the IPCC, regularly consults with a huge range of public and private interests, and publishes in Science and Nature. The path to the top was clear, and swift.

Except, no. Noah was an undergrad premed at Stanford. Until he failed, spectacularly, Chem 31. Then it was, almost, a degree in religious studies. But, no. Earth Systems 10 proved riveting and, fortunately for the field (and my own academic career!), Noah turned to science.

At least for a while. Upon graduation, Noah returned to Mount Madonna. He taught at the center’s school but a broader direction eluded; restlessness grew; the benefits and costs of communal life came into sharper focus.

I essentially didn’t go through adolescence and didn’t really leave home until my mid 20s when I was already married and already had a kid

For a lot of us, grad school attracts because it is something to do that seems potentially valuable, interesting and fun, without having to make an absolute choice about what, exactly, you’re committing to. So it was for Noah.

I went to grad school, and I made my grad school decision, for all the wrong reasons … if I ever said out loud my motivation and what I was thinking … I don’t think I would ever get admitted

And leaving home, surprisingly, only meant moving a few miles from Mount Madonna to UC Santa Cruz. Noah eventually settled on paleoclimate research with Lisa Sloan, but only after considering other — and wildly unrelated — options.

Since then, I think the path has been clearer, and Noah has made major contributions to our understanding of extreme heat, among many other topics. Most of our conversation, however, had a decidedly philosophical bent to it, and we wrapped up with a discussion of how the US presidential election at least had the useful outcome of prompting Noah to think about how scientists communicate statistics.

We talked for almost two hours, and still did not get to a lot of topics I wanted to cover (being the chief editor for GRL, life as an academic in Silicon Valley, gender balance in science, non-governmental funding). Editing the interview down to something reasonable took me forever, but I wanted to keep as much as possible. I think the story of Noah’s path through life and science could prove useful, especially for young scientists starting out and wondering if any of your role models also wondered … what am I doing in grad school, why did I pick this advisor, why am I studying this topic, am I really this bad at lab work. Yes. Yes they did. You too might come out the other side.


Music: Solitude, by Broke For Free. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

 

Josh Willis

Normally my show notes are carefully reasoned, sober discussions of the remarkable pathways forged by inspirational scientists, and their subsequent breakthroughs. Not this time. This time, I will begin with a headline about today’s Forecast victim guest, Josh Willis, that might be suitable for The Onion:


Idiot leftist scientist thrown out of school, concludes that warm water melts ice


Josh Willis

This is all true, from a certain point of view. Josh was called an idiot leftist scientist by Rush Limbaugh (a moniker enthusiastically adopted by Josh and, err, Josh’s wife), had to leave his PhD program in Physics, and is now leading the massive Oceans Melting Greenland program. But a more realistic telling is doubtless in order.

Josh grew up in Texas and completed a bachelor’s degree in Physics at the University of Houston. There, in the honors program, he met his future wife, a California native. The two soon relocated to SoCal, where Josh entered the PhD program in physics at the University of California San Diego and his wife attended medical school in Los Angeles.

Physics, however, was not to be Josh’s calling and he ultimately did not pass the departmental examinations. Although he came out with a master’s degree in physics, the experience was certainly a setback, and one that took Josh a year or two to get over.

Failure, as is so often the case, had an upside. Rather than inducing a downward spiral, the physics experience ultimately proved a huge relief for Josh, and one that led him to a vastly more fulfilling career studying oceanography at Scripps, where he worked with the great Dean Roemmich. There, Josh did some of the early work on coupling satellite altimetry with ocean observations to estimate ocean heat content.

The start of Josh’s PhD coincided almost exactly with one of the most important advances in oceanography, maybe ever: the Argo program. As Josh says

It was super exciting … it was also kind of scary … In retrospect it seems obvious, but at the time, it was almost crazy

The launch of the incredible Argo data stream created nearly new fields of inquiry, particularly into ocean heat content. But as is the case with any new data explosion, particularly when trying to bolt it onto older datasets, problems can emerge. Josh and his colleagues published a paper entitled “Recent cooling of the upper ocean“, but soon found out that the cooling was due to problems in both the earlier XBT data and software problems in a group of North Atlantic Argo floats. A correction soon followed. I completely view this as a positive, rather than negative, example of how climate science actually functions: scientists follow the data, and revise their conclusions based on new information.

Unfortunately, Josh figured out the error upon walking out the door for a Valentine’s day dinner with his wife. Dinner was a disaster, and

As retribution, my wife had business cards made that have my job title as idiot leftist scientist

Josh’s fake business card, kindly made by Josh’s wife after he botched a Valentine’s day dinner.

Now Josh is pursuing one of the main topics in sea level research: the interactions between Greenland’s marine-terminating glaciers and the surrounding ocean. Prior work had revealed some of these interactions in particular fjords, but Josh and his colleagues are now conducting systematic radar surveys of all of Greenland’s outlet glaciers, combined with sensors parachuted into the fjords. The project — Oceans Melting Greenland — is in the data collection phase, and is part of a recent special issue in Oceanography. Once complete, we should have a much better idea of how and where ice-ocean interactions are strongest, and what the implications will be for sea level rise.

Josh has a wicked sense of humor, even in the face of potential impending disaster for federally-funded climate science. Just check out Dick Dangerfield on the video section of the OMG Facebook page. I like episode 1 in particular.


Music: As Colorful As Ever, by Broke For Free. CC BY-NC 3.0.

Jon Foley

Jonathan Foley is the Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, the previous director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and the founder of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin. In many ways, Jon is one of the foremost thinkers and actors about the science of sustainability. Continue reading →

Bronwyn Wake chief editor of Nature Climate Change

How, exactly, does one get to be an editor of a Nature-branded journal? What do we do? How do we decide what to publish? And what’s up with all our journals? In this episode of Forecast, I hash out these issues with Bronwyn Wake, the chief editor of Nature Climate Change. But don’t worry … if you’re thinking about becoming an editor, working in a bar is not a prerequisite. Continue reading →

Daniel Aldana Cohen on urban climate mitigation

Climate scientists are used to the idea of climate mitigation. But few are involved in the nitty-gritty of what climate mitigation might look like at the local or even neighborhood level. Daniel Aldana Cohen from the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania is digging into the politics and sociology of urban carbon emissions. A dizzying array of forces are at work. Continue reading →

Susan Joy Hassol and climate communication

Language is spectacularly imprecise. Susan Joy Hassol from Climate Communication has made a career out of studying how to — and how not to — use language to most effectively communicate climate science to a broad audience. Continue reading →

Ed Hawkins on policy-relevant climate science

Maybe once a year I have a nightmare that I’m back in grad school, grinding out an interminable PhD in some entirely new field. Ed Hawkins from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science actually did head back for a new degree and a new career, but, luckily for climate science, it seems to have been more of a dream than a nightmare. Continue reading →

Jerry Mitrovica and geological influences on sea level rise

Jerry Mitrovica from Harvard University sits at the surprisingly wobbly interface between the solid Earth, oceans and ice. Trained in serious geophysics, Jerry quickly found a niche in explaining how movements of the Earth’s mantle – in three dimensions – control the apparent variation of past sea levels. In many cases, this means pointing out that many or all of our records of past sea level are fundamentally altered by processes like dynamic topography and isostatic rebound. Continue reading →