Yao Tandong tells Mike about realizing his long-held dream: working of the Tibetan Plateau, now as director of the Institute for Tibetan Plateau (ITP) Research (and much else besides!). For Tandong, it all began in 1978 when he was initially exposed to Tibetan glaciology. It cannot have been an easy path. Tandong’s parents were minimally educated, and he was among the first cohort of Chinese students to obtain a western-style MS and PhD. He then spent a decade working in France and the US, forging long-running relationships with some of the best-known scientists in the ice coring community.
Tandong recounts the reformation of Chinese science institutions: the purging of staff and institutes, dealing with systemic nepotism, entrenched benefits system. The ITP arose from the ashes, with funding of about $35 million and now another $250 million for Tibetan Plateau and Third Pole research. The scope is simply astonishing, and yet another indicator of China’s rise to global prominence in big science.
Kaitlin Naughten from the University of New South Wales works on one of the most pressing issues facing modern climate science: interactions between the ocean and the vast ice shelves fringing Antarctica. Existentially, this interaction has the potential to largely determine the rate and amount of sea level rise disgorging from the continent. Will it be 20 cm by 2100? Or 15 m by 2500? The atmosphere is a key player, but ice-ocean interactions will remain critical for centuries. To get the big picture right, however, we need models that physically couple ice sheets/shelves with the ocean. This is hard, really hard, on scientific and computer engineering fronts.
For her PhD, Kaitlin Beneath took the plunge into a massive — and successful — model debugging project that identified and fixed a vexing numerical instability involving sea ice production. In her postdoc, soon to start at the British Antarctic Survey, Kaitlin will be working on similarly challenging modeling, this time for the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf.
So, safe to say that Kaitlin excels at identifying and working through major scientific challenges. But she has also had to work through another challenge: a stutter. We talk about the many, and serious, challenges of having a stutter while pursuing a career in science – which inevitably involves a lot of talking. There are many facets to having, and managing a stutter: the triggers, how to give a scientific talk or conduct an interview, making career choices. Maybe the most important point for me is Kaitlin’s suggestion of how best to talk with someone with a stutter. Don’t do any of the things that might occur to you. Don’t try to finish a stutter’s sentence. Don’t fill empty space with empty talk. Wait. Just wait.
I should also say a bit about how I edited my interview with Kaitlin. I edited out umms, errs, and the like. I trimmed sections of the conversation where Kaitlin began one thread of conversation but then went a different way. This is exactly what I do for all guests. But it wasn’t clear how or if to edit Kaitlin’s stutter. If I edited out all the stutter, then it wouldn’t be Kaitlin’s voice, and we both felt this was not the way to go. We discussed other options, and decided to edit out some of the more extended blockages, but to leave others. This way, the listener will have a clear sense of what Kaitlin’s stutter is like, but the interview itself is somewhat compressed. Keep in mind that, when you meet Kaitlin in person, the stutter might be more or less than what you hear in the interview.
Normally my show notes are carefully reasoned, sober discussions of the remarkable pathways forged by inspirational scientists, and their subsequent breakthroughs. Not this time. This time, I will begin with a headline about today’s Forecast victim guest, Josh Willis, that might be suitable for The Onion:
Idiot leftist scientist thrown out of school, concludes that warm water melts ice
This is all true, from a certain point of view. Josh was called an idiot leftist scientist by Rush Limbaugh (a moniker enthusiastically adopted by Josh and, err, Josh’s wife), had to leave his PhD program in Physics, and is now leading the massive Oceans Melting Greenland program. But a more realistic telling is doubtless in order.
Josh grew up in Texas and completed a bachelor’s degree in Physics at the University of Houston. There, in the honors program, he met his future wife, a California native. The two soon relocated to SoCal, where Josh entered the PhD program in physics at the University of California San Diego and his wife attended medical school in Los Angeles.
Physics, however, was not to be Josh’s calling and he ultimately did not pass the departmental examinations. Although he came out with a master’s degree in physics, the experience was certainly a setback, and one that took Josh a year or two to get over.
Failure, as is so often the case, had an upside. Rather than inducing a downward spiral, the physics experience ultimately proved a huge relief for Josh, and one that led him to a vastly more fulfilling career studying oceanography at Scripps, where he worked with the great Dean Roemmich. There, Josh did some of the early work on coupling satellite altimetry with ocean observations to estimate ocean heat content.
The start of Josh’s PhD coincided almost exactly with one of the most important advances in oceanography, maybe ever: the Argo program. As Josh says
It was super exciting … it was also kind of scary … In retrospect it seems obvious, but at the time, it was almost crazy
The launch of the incredible Argo data stream created nearly new fields of inquiry, particularly into ocean heat content. But as is the case with any new data explosion, particularly when trying to bolt it onto older datasets, problems can emerge. Josh and his colleagues published a paper entitled “Recent cooling of the upper ocean“, but soon found out that the cooling was due to problems in both the earlier XBT data and software problems in a group of North Atlantic Argo floats. A correction soon followed. I completely view this as a positive, rather than negative, example of how climate science actually functions: scientists follow the data, and revise their conclusions based on new information.
Unfortunately, Josh figured out the error upon walking out the door for a Valentine’s day dinner with his wife. Dinner was a disaster, and
As retribution, my wife had business cards made that have my job title as idiot leftist scientist
Now Josh is pursuing one of the main topics in sea level research: the interactions between Greenland’s marine-terminating glaciers and the surrounding ocean. Prior work had revealed some of these interactions in particular fjords, but Josh and his colleagues are now conducting systematic radar surveys of all of Greenland’s outlet glaciers, combined with sensors parachuted into the fjords. The project — Oceans Melting Greenland — is in the data collection phase, and is part of a recent special issue in Oceanography. Once complete, we should have a much better idea of how and where ice-ocean interactions are strongest, and what the implications will be for sea level rise.
All images courtesy NASA, from https://omg.jpl.nasa.gov/.
Josh has a wicked sense of humor, even in the face of potential impending disaster for federally-funded climate science. Just check out Dick Dangerfield on the video section of the OMG Facebook page. I like episode 1 in particular.
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 →
For Valérie Masson-Delmotte, climate science is like a jigsaw puzzle. Unlike a house of cards, where the removal of one element causes the whole thing to crash down, the central picture of a puzzle is still apparent when pieces — maybe even many pieces — are missing. Continue reading →
Lauren Andrews has done some of the most interesting work I’ve seen on subglacial hydrology — as a grad student, and with a degree of independence that would be unusual in most any PhD.
Lauren grew up in a scientific/agricultural household: her father was a groundwater hydrologist but the family also ran a small farm, with a range of animals. Lauren was active in 4-H, an organization that promotes (among other things) individual responsibility and organization, skills that came into play during Lauren’s time on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
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.
For my first interview, I met with Martin Siegert, who I’ve known for a few years from meetings and a visit to the University of Edinburgh. Martin is the co-director of the Grantham Institute, a well-known climate institute based at Imperial College London, with a goal to, at least in part, bring climate science into a broader societal discussion.