Gabe Vecchi

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!

Gabe Vecchi. Credit Igor Heifetz.

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!

Lixin Wu and the rising tide of Chinese oceanography

I met Lixin Wu when I was at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao for a writing workshop (now called Nature Masterclasses). Several things impressed me about Lixin right away. First, he’s a lot of fun to be around and equally at ease in formal situations and banquets. Then, he’s clearly an inspiration to his staff and colleagues. Finally, he has big visions for his own science, the OUC, and Chinese marine science in general.

Continue reading →

Kim Cobb on El Nino, geochemistry and women in science

Obsessed by El Niño

Corals and speleothems are some of our most useful recorders of past climate variability. The spectacular speleothem records from eastern China, for example, have been instrumental in building our understanding of past variations in the East Asian Monsoon. But as is the case for most any paleoclimate proxy, corals and speleothems do not record a direct record of … well, anything.

Continue reading →

Mat Collins on climate models and El Nino

Understanding climate models

If you’ve heard about any climate cycle, it’s probably the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. 2015/2016 is looking like it might bring a record El Niño, and media coverage is, for climate, pretty remarkable.

The coverage is understandable, as weird things happen during big El Niños. The eastern tropical Pacific Ocean is anomalously warm during boreal winter. Deep convection moves away from the Western Pacific Warm Pool, and other bits of the climate system tend to shift to unusual states.

Continue reading →