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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Forecast is mostly about climate science — the people who do it, and why they’re stoked about their work. But science is inevitably conducted within a political context, and Mike is a neanderthal when it comes to politics. Gretchen Goldman from the Union of Concerned Scientists, on the other hand, knows a lot about science policy. Gretchen initially planned to avoid the often-unpleasant dynamics surrounding climate science, and went into air pollution research. Eventually the draw of engaging in even bigger issues proved too much to resist, and Gretchen is now the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS. Gretchen leaves Mike feeling surprisingly optimistic. In spite of the dark times facing US climate science, and as Gretchen discusses in a Science Policy Forum, there are still clear ways for scientists to engage with the broader public and to promote the use of science in the democratic and policy process. For those interested in getting more involved, the UCS provides excellent resources for networking and dealing with personal attacks.
Disclosure: As Gretchen discusses in the interview, her husband works at NOAA, an agency whose budget faces major cuts. He is also the consulting meteorologist for climate.gov.
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.
Music from the album Encounters by Metastaz CC-BY-NC 4.0. Includes the tracks Hashashin, Vampire, and Girl and Assassin.
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 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!
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!