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This is What It’s Like To Be a Young Climate Scientist

This year is proving to be a momentous one for the climate. There have been both wildly depressing and wildly hopeful milestones.

On the downside, carbon dioxide passed the symbolic 400 parts per million threshold permanently (in our lifetimes anyways), the planet is going to have its hottest year on record for the third year in a row and a rash of extreme weather events shook the world this summer. More positively, the Paris Agreement was ratified, a new treaty was put in place to ban a potent greenhouse gas and renewable energy continues to surge.

The 15 hottest months on record have all occurred since March 2015.
Credit: NOAA

It’s an interesting time to be alive, but perhaps an even more interesting time to join the climate science field. We’re at a crucial turning point for both the field and humanity.

Scientists entering the field now are standing on the shoulders of more than 150 years of climate change research. Our scientific knowledge of climate change has expanded tremendously since John Tyndall’s work on greenhouse gases starting in the 1850s (and even since James Hansen’s 1988 testimony before Congress for that matter).

Yet there are still questions to be answered about climate change, in particular pinning down what comes next for the world and the people, plants and animals that call it home. To get a sense of what comes next for field and how it feels to start a career at a time when so much is clearly at stake, Climate Central talked with a handful of early career researchers on how they view the field. Below are some of their answers, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How does it feel to start your career working on climate at a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming clearer and clearer?

Sylvia Dee, postdoctoral researcher at Brown studying climate over the past millennium: It’s an exciting time to be in this field for many reasons, not least of which is a relatively new interest from the community for public lectures and teaching. We have more and more students taking classes in atmospheric and ocean science, and many of us are increasingly being asked to give outreach lectures to organizations (in my case) like the Girl Scouts of America or the United Methodist Women. Public interest is an incredibly valuable tool for improving climate education.

From a research perspective, I think many of us early career climate scientists feel the same: there are so many questions to answer, and so little time! Whether we like it or not, humans are performing an active experiment on the earth through the continued emission of greenhouse gases. I think (and hope) we are poised to make some major breakthroughs in our understanding of complex climate system feedbacks that could shape our high-greenhouse-gas future.  

Zack Labe, PhD student at University of California, Irvine studying Arctic climate change: There is a mixture of emotions. On one hand, OK, we are doing something right. The climate models are not clueless. On the other hand, human carbon emissions are amplifying societal and environmental impacts signaling the call to act. Nevertheless, it is an exciting time to enter this field as technological advancements are rapidly changing our understanding of both natural and anthropogenic climate change.

Kate Marvel, associate research scientist at NASA studying climate modeling: On a scientific level, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing physical theory reflected in the real world. It’s amazing that we understand and can make predictions about the way the world works. And as a scientist working to understand the specifics of what climate change actually looks like, it’s gratifying to see wide interest in the field. But on a personal level, I find it deeply unsettling. I worry about the mess we’re leaving our kids, and it upsets me that the people most affected by climate change are the ones least responsible.

Sarah Myhre, postdoc at the University of Washington studying abrupt ocean changes: Kind of hard. Weird. Complex. Lots of cognitive dissonance. Some existential crisis. I’m not going to lie, it’s a gritty place when you are staring down at data and probabilities for how your favorite places in the world will change during your kid’s life span. Honestly, being a parent has also really changed my approach to my career. Having a kid and seeing how much my parents love my kid has made me feel so connected to people in the future. It’s a hard question because I love my career. I am supremely privileged to get to do the work that I do. But there is a big part of shouldering the knowledge of this global crisis that has been challenging for me. It’s caused me some grief and it’s really forced me to grow up.

Why did you get into climate research in the first place?

Zack Labe: I was your pretty stereotypical weather nerd growing up, staying up way too late to watch a Northeast snowstorm, running outside in a thunderstorm (do not do this) and so on. I expected to take an operational weather forecasting career path. About midway through undergrad, I contacted a new professor in the department to try something different: research. During the rest of my time in undergrad, I spent a lot of time looking at climate models and reading the literature on this very dynamic field. The problems and impacts of climate change seemed outlined right there, yet, the term ”climate change” is almost taboo in some social settings. This missing link really seemed to strike an interest with me in continuing research while still having an interest in weather and the atmosphere.

Kate Marvel: I studied theoretical physics because I wanted to know how the universe worked. But during my PhD I realized that my favorite place in the cosmos is Earth, and that there was still lots to learn about it. I don’t regret my physics training — it taught me great problem-solving skills — but I prefer working on more applied problems.

Sarah Myhre: To go scuba diving. Actually, no. That’s not true. I got into research because I wanted to work underwater. I spent about 1,000 hours working as a seafloor ecologist with NOAA out of Hawaii, diving in some of the most remote marine ecosystems in the world. Then I went on a marine geology research cruise when I was just starting graduate school. That cruise changed my life, because I got to work with some of the most brilliant paleoceanographers. That cruise showed me that I could use all of my experiences in the modern ocean to understand ocean environments in the past.

Daniel Swain, postdoc at UCLA studying extreme weather events: I've always been fascinated by the atmosphere. I grew up watching clouds and reading weather maps. As an undergraduate studying atmospheric science, it became apparent to me that despite our solid understanding regarding the "big picture" surrounding global warming, there was still quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding the details. How is regional climate changing, and how does global warming affect extreme weather? It seemed to me that the answers to these kinds of questions are critical in making practical adaptations in a warming world.

How do you hope your research can help the field (or world for that matter) understand the challenges climate change poses and how to address them?

Zack Labe: We know that changes in the Arctic are one of the key indicators of climate change, but the effects on the rest of the Earth system remain very uncertain. For instance, it is not only the fact that sea ice is melting, but the rate of change at which it is occurring. What does this mean for the balance of the rest of the climate system? I hope my research can better evaluate these questions and further communicate the issues to a broader audience.

Data from ship logs, military records and satellites show 100 years of Arctic sea ice minimums.
Credit: Zack Labe

Sarah Myhre: I hope that the work I do is useful and meaningful, both for my scientific peers and for society. I am working to make a contribution to the field of abrupt climate change, by looking at marine sediment records of past events of climate warming. As they say, “the past is the key to the future,” so if we can come to a more direct understanding of how oceans changed during past events of warming, we are equipping ourselves with the tools to interpret the changes we see in the modern world.

Daniel Swain: Given my longstanding interest weather and short-timescale atmospheric phenomena, I approach climate research from a slightly different perspective than some scientists. I think it's helpful to view climate as "weather in aggregate," and since it's ultimately extreme events like storms, floods, and droughts that cause the most harm in a societal context, it makes sense to focus on how global warming is affecting the character and causes of these sorts of high-impact conditions. Ideally, this work will yield scientific insights into underlying atmospheric processes while simultaneously informing real world decision-making.

Where do you see the field of climate science going in the next 10 years?

Sylvia Dee: The earth is, for lack of a better term, very large. We have a ton of data and we have massive super computers constantly running coupled model simulations that can take months and yield terabytes of output. In the next 10 years, we’re going to have to learn how to effectively use this massive body of data we have access to and filter out the robust signals from the noise.

Kate Marvel: I’m actually really excited for the future of the field. My peers are amazing — there is so much talent among early-career scientists. I think we’ll have a better understanding of the climate feedbacks that can speed up or slow down warming, particularly what clouds will do. We’re getting better at quantifying and communicating uncertainty. I also think we’ll get better at understanding and projecting regional climate and talking to more people — not just policymakers, but ordinary people who are going to be affected by climate change. I do think we need to get even more serious about diversity. If scientists don’t reflect society, how can we be sure we’re not missing important questions? We waste an awful lot of potential brilliance right now, and I’m optimistic that we’ll take steps to stop that.

Daniel Swain: There are two avenues that seem especially promising to me at the moment. The first is the ever-increasing capacity and sophistication of global climate models. I'm particularly intrigued by the prospect of large "ensembles" of high-resolution climate simulations, which may help us constrain the still relatively large uncertainties regarding regional climate change and will hopefully also yield better information regarding changes in extreme events in the climate system.

The second is the rapidly spreading recognition that climate science communication is a critically important endeavor. Increasingly many institutions are recognizing that the obligations of the modern scientist extend beyond the generation of novel research, and that there is a real need for practicing scientists to engage with the wider world. Actively connecting with decision makers, journalists, and the public will be key in building a resilient society in the face of rapid environmental change.

Are you hopeful or does climate change get you down?

Sylvia Dee: I would say that I’m cautiously hopeful. I find the rate at which policy accepts and moves on scientific consensus to be frustrating, but I think I’m not unique in my attempts to be proactive instead of throw in the towel, so to speak. I certainly never feel defeated or upset about it the way I do about a few other political issues.

Kate Marvel: Whisky. (Editor’s note: Marvel received a different version of this question framed as how to stay positive in the face of seemingly continual bad climate news. Her response was too good not to include.)

Whisky: sometimes it comes in handy.
Credit: Thomas Hawk/flickr

Sarah Myhre: The answer to that question is yes. It is such a huge problem and I feel the gnawing pain of it in my day-to-day life. I definitely carry my work around with me wherever I go. But I also have to feed my heart with other things. I am living my life while doing this hard work, and I think every moment that I despair at these data must be compensated by a moment where I experience joy and connection. The world is still beautiful and I’m lucky to be here, that’s what I tell myself. I also remember that I signed up for this and that everyone needs to serve someone, and this is what my service looks like.

How concerned are you about the political polarization of climate change and possible solutions?

Sylvia Dee: I’m mostly concerned about the problem from an education perspective. Earth science puts educators in a unique position: we have suddenly been tasked with teaching a politically charged topic, in a field highly underrepresented in K-12 education. Students often enter our courses with erroneous preconceived notions about earth science. I have a strong desire to address the widespread confusion about climate change, and the best way I know how is to teach and to do more outreach. The recent media circus surrounding global warming has highlighted an urgent need for policymakers and the public to understand very basic principles of geoscience, and my teaching experience has alerted me to profound knowledge gaps at the undergraduate level. High school science curricula focus on biology, physics, and chemistry, but a basic understanding of geoscience is also crucial for a society accelerating into a future with a human-altered atmosphere.

Zack Labe: Science requires discussion. It requires skepticism. And it requires revisions. But we are in an era where political drivers are leading to poor discourse and public communication concerning the state of our understanding of climate change. We need a common voice and one that emphasizes our certainties and uncertainties. How do we go about doing this? I think this is a critical question looking ahead in removing the political and agenda-driven divide. Most importantly, let’s keep science . . . science.

Sarah Myhre: I am honestly sickened by it. We need basic science in our public lives and in our leadership. This is the 21st century. I have a computer in my back pocket. We have an instrument driving around Mars. We landed another instrument on a damn comet. Science works and it shouldn’t be on the table to debate any longer.

Daniel Swain: It is very frustrating to see just how decoupled the national political conversation surrounding climate change has become from the physical reality of the world we live in. Recognition of basic factual information shouldn't be a partisan issue and yet one of the two major political parties in the U.S. currently rejects the overwhelming factual evidence demonstrating that humans are largely responsible for global warming. But it doesn't have to be this way. It's possible to envision a future where scientific consensus forms the basis of a political common ground, in which there there are legitimate ideological disagreements regarding what should be done about climate change but a shared reality regarding its existence and causes. I'm hopeful we can get there.

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