Most everyone you’ve heard on Forecast has a twisty career path. But Joe McConnell took an unusually circuitous route to his current role as a leading ice core scientist. Joe bombed as a dishwasher, thrived as a post-hole digger, started a consulting company as a teenager, considered anthropology and environmental law for his studies, switched gears to signal processing for oil exploration, traveled the world, returned to grad school with the aim of starting a hydrological consulting company, but ultimately returned to work on one of his enduring passions — the high latitudes. Now, Joe and his crew melt and analyze tiny bits of ice cores in one of the world’s premier continuous flow analysis labs. The samples are small, but the output is huge: major leaps in our understanding of black carbon, volcanism, and the interactions between humanity and the Earth system.
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.
In episode 51 of Forecast, Jérôme Chappellaz regales Mike with all manner ice core tales. The early days of discovering that methane varies hugely between glacial and interglacial states; profligate consumption of ice in the early days; the intensely competitive yet fundamentally friendly nature of the field; the ever-present need to take scientific risks; documentary film making. Spontaneity, chance and inspiration dominate the conversation. Jérôme’s insomnia while in Antarctica leads to the crazy dream of Subglacior, a radical development in ice core technology, and a meeting with royalty leads to funding for the Ice Memory project. Perhaps unique among the geosciences, the ice core community and Jérôme in particular are constantly faced with disappearing/melting records, and the pressing need to create an ice archive for the next generation and whatever hammers will be in their toolbox. Leading to … sequencing the history of the Black Plague from ice cores, maybe?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 →
Amelia Shevenell from the University of South Florida specializes in big ideas about paleoceanography and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. She’s also keen to push the methodological envelope, which can be risky if things go pear shaped. For Amelia, though, the work resulted in papers in Science (Mg/Ca) and Nature (TEX86). Continue reading →
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.
I think I first learned of Rob DeConto when I saw his paper entitled Thresholds for Cenozoic bipolar glaciation, published soon after my arrival at Nature. Specific and testable thresholds for the initiation of large scale glaciation in Antarctica and the Northern Hemisphere? Interesting! Continue reading →