Burning questions with Max Moritz

Max Moritz regales Mike with some of the many intricacies of modern fire science. The dominant narrative in the Western US might be “long-term fire suppression is leading to severe fire seasons”. While there is some truth here, the individual fire stories are, inevitably, local. Local land use practices, building codes, vegetation stress, and climate change all conspire to make any one explanation … less than convincing. As Max tells it, we need to accept fire as part of our human system, and move towards a more active role in planning our future co-existence.

Max Moritz


Sonia Seneviratne on droughts, extremes, the IPCC … and laundry in Switzerland

I met Sonia Seneviratne from ETH Zürich at a climate conference way back in 2013. This was not long after she served as a coordinating lead author of the now-famous IPCC SREX report, which lit a spark under the field of climate extremes. Sonia tells me the back story of becoming a CLA, the ongoing challenges of quantifying changes in extremes — droughts in particular, and the need to communicate seemingly obvious climate science to a broader audience. We talk through some of the most pressing issues in modern climate science:  our chances of staying below 1.5 °C of warming without climate engineering, climate engineering with land-based albedo modifications, and the kinds of societal transformations needed for radical mitigation. And hanging out your laundry in Switzerland. Like climate, it’s complicated.

Sonia Seneviratne

Music: Lullaby for Democracy CC BY-NC 4.0 and Rotisserie Graveyard CC BY 4.0 by Doctor Turtle.

Jessica Oster on speleothem geochemistry

Speleothems — stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones — are a central tool for reconstructing past hydroclimate variability. But what, really, are they recording? Jessica Oster from Vanderbilt University walks Mike through the long, incredibly long, process of permitting, extracting, transporting, sampling, analyzing, and understanding the isotopic signals encoded in these bedeviling but transporting recorders.

Succeeding in the field requires incredible patience combined with the ability to think deeply about how the sparse but growing network of speleothems, combined with other hydroclimate records, can inform our understanding of past climate dynamics. And progress is happening. For example, Jessica tell Mike how she and her colleagues pulled together a sweeping collection of paleoclimate evidence to reveal how the jet stream contracted and twisted in glacial boundary conditions, rather than moving monolithically south.

One gets the sense that the community is, finally, approaching a broader consensus that speleothems are recording measures of atmospheric circulation and moisture source, not a pure amount signal. Maybe the simpler explanation would have been easier to parse, but the more complex interpretation also points towards the potential for a richer understanding of past climate dynamics in a range of boundary conditions.

Music: Hallon by Christian Bjoerklund CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

The climate of Westeros with Dan Lunt

There’s incessant talk about impostor syndrome among scientists. But paleoclimate modeler Dan Lunt from the University of Bristol actually DOES pretend to be someone he is not. Specifically, Radagast the Brown from Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Samwell Tarly from Martin’s Westeros. Madness? Only if it is mad to spend what must have been a ridiculous amount of time researching and writing papers on The  Climate of Middle Earth and The Climate of the world of Game of Thrones. Dan tells Mike what’s behind this unusual outreach work, and some of the surprisingly interesting climate mechanisms at work (annual precession  cycles anyone?). The conversation wheels across Dan’s studies at Oxford, the incredible longevity of HadCM3, Earth system sensitivity, EMICs vs. emulators, model intercomparisons, the challenges of working with geologic data, and launching Geoscience Model Development. And finally, the life-long trauma of supporting a mediocre football club.

Dan Lunt from the University of Bristol

Corinne Le Quéré on the global carbon cycle

Deciphering the global carbon cycle is as fascinating as it is difficult. There are carbon fluxes in and out of the planet, all over the place, and at all time scales. Observational gaps are numerous and gaping. Uncertainties on country level emissions are increasing. Yet the global carbon budget is perhaps THE central bit of knowledge that society must have, if an informed decision on carbon mitigation is ever to be made. Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia is working to quantify — with enormous effort — just such a budget. You might think it’s like balancing a checkbook, and you’d be right. But only if your checkbook includes investments with unknown and time-variable interest rates, and frequent, untraceable withdrawals. As Corrine tells Mike, in spite of the massive challenges, the carbon cycle community is making tremendous progress in pinning down the many elusive processes that ultimately control the main variable of interest: atmospheric CO2 levels.

Music: Hallon by Christian Bjoerklund CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

The bassline of climate with Julien Emile-Geay

In episode 50 of Forecast, Julien Emile-Geay from the University of Southern California calmly presents a somewhat radical world view. Love of jazz as a means of selecting a grad school; universities as revolutionary institutions; pursuit of science as a subversive activity. Even more unusual: considering data and models not as separate entities, but as co-equal, and integral, facets of research into paleoclimate dynamics. For example, Julien is leading efforts on both massive data compilations, and on the massive Last Millennium Reanalysis. Progress is coming on many fronts, including ENSO dynamics, the always-controversial topic of solar-climate interactions, and low frequency climate variability — what Julien calls the “bassline of the climate soundtrack”.

Credit: USC media office

The arc of TEX86 with Jessica Tierney

In this episode of Forecast, Jess tells Mike about the origins of the TEX86 temperature proxy — an index of membrane lipids produced by mesophilic archaea. The origins in the 1980s in extreme ocean environment; discovery of membrane production in a huge range of environments; brute force discovery of the index; the inevitable struggles to understand what it actually represents; an unusually active and sometimes dismissive debate about its usefulness. All proxies have issues, but Jess and her colleagues are converging on the what/when/where for TEX86’s application. For Jess, work on TEX86 (and other methods!) is leading to an improved understanding of the atmospheric dynamics, surface processes, and feedbacks governing past climate variability, particularly in the tropics.

Jess Tierney

Extremes are the new normal, with Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick

The causes of heat waves are kind of like the controls on a car. We know that pressure systems, land-atmosphere interactions, and modes of variability like ENSO act to control extremes, just as we know that the steering wheel, moderated by the brake and gas pedals, controls the direction and velocity of the car. But imagine driving a car blindfolded. Yes, you know what the controls do, but the chances of hitting something hard are pretty high if you keep the gas pedal down, careening across even the most familiar of roads. For extremes, the moment-to-moment, season-to-season occurrence of extremes will remain challenging to predict, like the exact moment at which you’ll veer out of your lane, but the coming impact of blindly increasing emissions is more certain. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick from the University of New South Wales endured the horrendous heat of Australia’s 2017 summer – pregnant, in a badly insulated house with wobbly air conditioning – and is studying heat waves and how they will change in a persistently warming climate. As Sarah tells Mike, the news is almost uniformly not good. Unless the foot comes off the gas pedal, the car is going to hit the wall: rare events in today’s climate are likely to become seasonally persistent; different emission pathways might delay but won’t alter the ultimate arrival of catastrophic heat. Of course, society could adapt, and Australians could end up living the bulk of their lives in air conditioned spaces, at the cost of further emission increases, radical changes to lifestyle, and eye-popping expense. Is this the world we want? Let’s hope not, but the mitigation equivalent of self-driving cars is not going to magically appear. It’s just us.

Music: Balkan Qoulou by Watcha Clan CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US; Backed Vibes Clean by Kevin MacLeod CC BY 3.0

Jory Lerback and gender inequities in peer review

Today’s interview, with Jory Lerback from the University of Utah, has both nothing and everything to do with climate science. I think for the first time in the history of Forecast, no one mentioned the word climate. Instead, we talked about Jory’s recent Nature Comment entitled “Journals invite too few women to referee“.

Jory’s work arose out of her time between undergraduate and graduate studies, when she worked at AGU headquarters analyzing their massive database of authors and referees.

There is some good news on the gender equity front. For the youngest cohorts of geosciences, women are at ~ 40% of corresponding authors.

But otherwise,  it’s still discouraging. Overall, women are about 28% of AGU authors, yet make up only 20% of the pool of referees. So, even relative to their low representation as authors, women are even more underrepresented as referees.

The problem arises at least in part because corresponding authors recommend too few women and editors select too few women. Women also decline reviews at slightly higher rates.

At Nature, our informal analysis shows roughly similar results, although in some fields, submitting authors recommend women referees in the single digit range.

Addressing gender inequity in science is a perpetual topic, but for the specific case of referees, there is at least a practical way forward. Authors — recommend female referees! Editors — invite female referees … and when invited referees decline, ask for recommendations for appropriate female alternatives.

Restaurants redux

My post on restaurant picks for AGU 2016 was one of the more popular blog entries to date on Forecast, so I thought I’d add a quick podcast on the same topic. I got together with two of my colleagues from Nature Chemical Biology, Mirella Bucci and Grant Miura, to talk through some of my list, and a few new additions. We recorded in the loud, reverb-laden Nature office, so the audio quality is horrendous. And I did virtually none of my usual editing. Quick and dirty, just like a good Mission burrito. Happy eating!