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 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.
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.
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
Tina van de Flierdt from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London is an international leader in the use of geochemical proxies – particularly neodymium (Nd) – for reconstructing past ocean circulation, water masses and weathering. But her childhood and early interests pointed in a different direction. Continue reading →
Running a small business
Robin Bell and her colleagues found a volcano under the Antarctic Ice Sheet and water freezing onto the bottom of kms-thick ice. She championed the idea that glaciology needed instrumentation capable of observing the full ice sheet — from surface to base — all at the same time. To this end, she bolted ship-based gear on a small plane and … tried it out. And it worked! And continues to work, all in support of the massive question of trying to figure out how the ice sheets will behave in warming world, and what sea levels will be in the coming decades to centuries.