PhD student, Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences
Graduate Research Assistant , State Climate Office of North Carolina
Advisor: Ryan Boyles, Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences
What are you currently working on?
While trained as a meteorologist and statistician in my undergraduate career, my work has moved progressively toward applied climatology, climate change, and downscaling. Downscaling is a powerful tool, if used appropriately, to aid local decision making about climate change and seasonal forecasting across multiple sensors. My current work involves synthesizing the climate information available for ecological modeling and decision making in the Southeast. The uncertainty in these datasets is also of interest to me. In fact, there are many remaining questions about the propagation of error and uncertainty from the global climate models, through the process of downscaling, and into the modeling of impacts. Uncertainty is an important factor in structured decision making, but also with regards to discussing climate change with the public. As such, I am hopeful that my Ph.D. work and future career will consider new ways to assess and represent uncertainty from climate modeling and impact assessments with regards to the needs of different applications.
Have you had a personal experience that brought the consequences of global change home to you?
As a climate scientist, I know that one event does not define a trend and that one extreme event is not proof of climate change. However, an extreme event can be an experience that defines how a person thinks about climate change.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused insured losses of $41.1 billion ($25.8 billion associated with flooding), a total cost of $108 billion, and 1833 fatalities. These are some of the statistics that make Katrina the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. In reality though, what does this actually mean?These are numbers, and I know the physics of a hurricane, but what do they mean to others? When Katrina occurred, I was a sophomore in the meteorology program at NCSU. Over spring break in 2006, I volunteered to go on a service trip to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana to assist in recovery efforts. This trip made it clear to me that as much as I have learned and will learn about the physics of the atmosphere, it is also important to consider the impact to the lives of people and the environment.
After Katrina you would find entire houses moved off their foundations, homes choked with mud and debris, and bayous filled with debris from damaged boats, piers, and houses. The stories behind the pictures give a sense of what all the physics mean to people and to the environment. Since then, I’ve worked for the State Climate Office and EPA, completed a Master’s degree, and started my Ph.D. However, I have not forgotten that whatever others and I may accomplish in advancing scientific understanding, it is always important to remember that the physical phenomena have great impacts to human life and the environment. After Katrina and any extreme event, there is the question of if/how climate change is affecting the intensity/frequency of such events. Using Katrina as an example, there are two sets of questions.
The scientist’s question is, “how will the frequency/intensity of hurricanes vary under climate change?” In the context of the people and places affected, the related real world questions may be, “how frequently could destruction like this happen?” “Should I be prepared for this level of destruction or something else?” The layers in these questions show indirectly how important a change in global processes are at a local level and the complexity and uncertainty (both scientific and otherwise) involved. The decisions made based on the answers to such questions involve many sectors, both public and private. The uncertainty involved can affect how/if a decision is made. My point in all this is simple; climate change is important, but do not forget to ask what it means to other people (both general public and individual sectors) and to the environment in which we live.
What is the threat of global change that you are most concerned about?
One of my main concerns about climate change is the potential impact of changes in extreme events and how this influences ecosystems. Among these, the changes with regards to extreme events (particularly related to precipitation) are among the most difficult to represent in climate models, but can have the greatest impact to human life and ecosystems. The potential impact of such extremes (as described previously) makes it important to improve our understanding of how such events will change, and communicate these changes to the public and decision makers in effective ways.
What is the most unusual “tool” you use in your research?
In my current research, one of the most unusual tools I use is Bayesian statistics. In recent literature, Bayesian statistics has been shown to have the potential to quantify uncertainty in ways that classical statistics have not been able to. I am currently learning Bayesian statistics, in hopes of building a framework to track the propagation of uncertainty from climate models, through downscaling, into impact assessment and decision making.
What do you think most people misunderstand about global change?
There are many misconceptions surrounding climate change. Among these is the thought that any one event is proof or disproof of climate change. This is a major challenge from a communication aspect. Experiences like Hurricane Katrina tend to stick in the minds of most people, and it is understandable that people would search for a reason why that event occurred. It seems that, whether prompted by media or their own beliefs, people may jump to stating that something is proof that climate change exists or it is proof that climate change does not exist. This example, along with many other misconceptions, is why there is a huge need for scientists to be able to interact with the public and communicate effectively.