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 51 of Forecast, Jérôme Chappellaz regales Mike with all manner ice core tales. The early days of discovering that methane varies hugely between glacial and interglacial states; profligate consumption of ice in the early days; the intensely competitive yet fundamentally friendly nature of the field; the ever-present need to take scientific risks; documentary film making. Spontaneity, chance and inspiration dominate the conversation. Jérôme’s insomnia while in Antarctica leads to the crazy dream of Subglacior, a radical development in ice core technology, and a meeting with royalty leads to funding for the Ice Memory project. Perhaps unique among the geosciences, the ice core community and Jérôme in particular are constantly faced with disappearing/melting records, and the pressing need to create an ice archive for the next generation and whatever hammers will be in their toolbox. Leading to … sequencing the history of the Black Plague from ice cores, maybe?
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.