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Weather and Climate
While airborne dust is known to be an abundant component in the formation of rain and snow, a study [pdf] in February found that bacteria lofted into the atmosphere might also be a big part of the rainmaking mix.
Click here to read more from Discover Magazine.
Text from Discover Magazine. Image Credit: khalid almasoud, Creative Commons
We have chosen seven awesome scientists for you to meet John, Warren, Greg, Wayne, Gabriel, Sepi, and Joel would like to hear what questions you have about what it is like to be a scientist exploring weather and climate!
National Weather Service, NOAA
Want to know the answers to some of your questions?
Here you go!
Question One: I noticed that only one of the seven scientists profiled here is a woman. Is weather and climate science a male-dominated field?
I think it is fair to say that there are indeed more men than women in the fields of weather and climate, however, there isn't really a good reason why it should be that way. The ratio of women to men varies considerably depending on type of work being done. When I worked in research and development, my office had about an equal number of men and women. In the field office where I now work, there are considerably more men than women. At least part of the reason for this is that many meteorologists work odd hours or rotating shifts which are not "family friendly." Historically, with traditional parental roles, it was less likely that a mother would want to work that sort of schedule. However, traditional roles are changing and I expect the percentage of women working in weather and climate to increase.
Definitely not! More and more women are becoming climate scientist and some of the leaders in the field are women.
Weather and climate science have been male-dominated fields in the past. However, over the past 3 decades the total number of woman in weather and climate science (as estimated from the total number of B.S., M.S. and PhD. degrees awarded to women) has roughly tripled from approximately 10% in the 1980's to roughly 30% today. There are several excellent articles (e.g. in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society) that discuss the role of women in meteorology, management opportunities for women, etc. Traditionally female meteorologists holding advanced degrees have been more likely than their male counterparts to be employed by universities. However, that is changing, as an increasing number of women are being employed in operational meteorology (including at CPC). Today, roughly 25% of my staff at the CPC are women
Unfortunately, in climate science, like in many other scientific fields, there are a few underrepresented groups - of which women are one. That said, the situation is better than it used to be - though it still needs improvement. Many of us are active in trying to help reduce the underrepresentation that exists, and there are programs that try to deal with the perceived causes of this problem at various levels of educational and professional development (from Elementary School through early-career). For women pursuing their graduate degrees and in their early career, the Earth Science Women's Network and the Mentoring Physical Oceanography Women to Increase Retention (MPOWIR) programs aim to provide peer mentoring and other activities. For younger people, please don't let any perceived underrepresentation determine whether you follow a career you have a passion for: if you love science, learning, discovering, then study math and the sciences.
I want to take this opportunity to encourage young women (and members of other under-represented groups) reading this, who have an interest in weather and climate, to pursue their interests actively. We cannot remedy the underrepresentation problem without diverse young people entering the field. Because the problem is not limited to Earth Sciences, I would ask all young people that have an interest in science to pursue it. Science is a rewarding and exciting career. The pursuit of science will be made stronger by a more diverse group of people doing it
The field of atmospheric science is still a relatively male-dominated field. The number of women pursuing undergraduate degrees in atmospheric science has increased in the past few years but the numbers in graduate programs is still low. The number of professional women and especially in tenure-tracked university faculty positions and high level positions is also quite low.
Joel D. Scheraga
There are many highly-qualified, distinguished, and accomplished women working on issues related to climate change. Many of these women have made significant contributions to the field. Their contributions span a wide range of issues, such as understanding the physical processes contributing to climate change, the potential impacts of climate change on human health and the environment and the economy, and the different approaches to mitigating and avoiding climate change. For example, Dr. Susan Solomon was the Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Working Group that produced the 2007 report on the physical science of climate change. (The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the IPCC and Al Gore Jr. for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.) Other notable female scientists include Dr. Terry Root (Stanford University), Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig (Columbia University), Dr. Kristie Ebi (IPCC Working Group II Technical Support Unit), Dr. Inez Fung (University of California, Berkeley), Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel (Union of Concerned Scientists), Dr. Linda Mortsch (Environment Canada), Dr. Linda Mearns (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Dr. Diana Liverman (University of Oxford), Dr. Susanne Moser (University of California-Santa Cruz), and Ann Henderson-Sellers (Macquarie University), to name a few. I strongly encourage women interested in climate science to pursue careers in this field.
Question Two: Why are we so concerned about climate change? Hasn't the climate changed in the past?
Throughout the earth's existence, the climate has been continually changing. The reason for studying climate and climate change is so that we can better understand the causes of those changes and their potential impacts. The concerns now are that human influences will cause a detrimental change in the earth's climate.
Indeed the climate has changed much in the past mostly because of natural causes such as the changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun. What is difference at present is that mankind's emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide has changed the Earth's heat balance such that global warming is taking place.
To understand why we are so concerned about climate change, we must first define what it is. Climate change is the departure from the expected average weather or climate normals (temperature and precipitation) for a given place and time of year. In contrast with extreme events, such as snowfall in Florida, climate change is the long-term shift in the expected or average weather. Climate change reflects significant shifts in the mean state of the atmosphere-ocean-land system that results in shifts in the atmosphere and ocean circulation patterns, which in turn impacts regional weather.
Why Worry About Climate Change?
Temperature increases will have significant impacts on human activities: where we can live, what food we can grow and how or where we can grow food, and where organisms can potentially live. To be prepared for the effects of these potential impacts we need to know how much the Earth is warming, for how long the Earth has been warming, and the cause of the warming. Answers to these questions provide us with a better basis for making decisions related to issues such as water resource management and agricultural planning.
Climate Change in the Past
Paleoclimatic data provides an independent confirmation of recent warming, and also places the 19th to 20th century (1860 to present day) warming in the context of the last several centuries to millennia. The paleoclimatic record permits scientists to examine past climate even further back in time. This perspective is an important capability in providing clues for natural processes that could be causing the climate change we are now experiencing. So far, paleoclimatologists have been unable to find any natural climatic explanations for our present-day warming.
There have been many changes to climate in the past. Our knowledge of those changes is partly why we should be concerned about climate change. The entire human civilization that we know (writing, houses, agriculture, cities, cars and televisions) has happened in a climate relatively similar to the one we know now - though there have been substantial shifts even in those periods, with some evidence that the climate changes that occurred led to big disruptions to certain civilizations. These changes over the past 10,000 years are smaller than those that happened over hundreds of thousands and millions of years in the past, which would have certainly caused severe disruptions to our civilization (if we had been around as a civilization), and smaller than the changes we expect from the greenhouse gas changes over the next century. The perturbation to the energy balance of the planet that we are likely to produce by our increased greenhouse gases is larger than anything we've seen in human civilization. Part of the reason we are concerned about the changes that could occur from increasing greenhouse gases is that the planet seems to be fairly sensitive and capable of massive changes in its climate - changes so extreme that we probably don't want to test the limits.
Imagine you saw a sleeping lion, and someone told you it was known to wake up all on its own every now and again; would that make you feel any more comfortable about poking it with a stick? The same way, just because the earth's climate has changed dramatically without our help doesn't mean we should feel comfortable about changing the energy balance of the planet.
We are concerend about climate change since there are a number of potential impacts as a result of this change. The change in climate can impact our health, agriculture, living communities, and even the economy among impacts on many other aspects of our lives and environment.
Joel D. Scheraga
Yes, the Earth's climate has changed many times during the planet's history. We've experienced events like ice ages and long periods of warmth. Changes in the Earth's climate are due to a variety of natural factors, such as volcanic eruptions, changes in solar activity, and changes in the Earth's orbit. But since the Industrial Revolution, humans activities that add heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" to the atmosphere have also been affecting the Earth's climate.
Observations show that warming of the climate ("global warming") is unequivocal. The average temperature around the Earth since 1900 has risen by about 1.5F. The increase that has occurred over the past 50 years was due primarily to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Rising temperatures have also intensified the Earth's water cycle, resulting in changes in the amount and intensity of precipitation in different locations. If humans continue to emit greenhouse gases at or above the current pace, we will probably see an average global temperature increase of 2 to 11.5 degrees by 2100.
Changes in the Earth's climate are of concern because they can affect human health, food production, air quality, the availability and quality of water, coastal areas, forests, wildlife and ecosystems, and pose threats to infrastructure and economic activity. Climate-related changes are already being seen in the United States and its coastal waters. These changes include increases in heavy rainstorms, rising sea levels, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These impacts are different from region to region, and will grow under projected climate change. The more rapid rate at which the climate is changing due to human activities is of particular concern because it makes it more difficult for humans, wildlife, and ecosystems to respond, adapt and cope with the changes.
Question Three: What got you interested in weather and climate as a career?
As a young child, I was always very interested in weather. I had an inexpensive weather station and measured the snow depth during winter storms and watched lightning during thunderstorms. That interest somewhat faded in high school as my school's curriculum did not include any meteorology. I started college as a biology major. In my sophomore year, I took an introductory course in meteorology. That course caused me to reconsider my major, and I switched to meteorology between my sophomore and junior years.
I became involved in a summer science project while a graduate student that convinced me that I wanted to become a climate modeler.
I grew up in the hills of Vermont where I loved winter storms and the heavy snow that would bring great skiing.I also enjoyed watching the thermometer plunge on those clear nights in January when the snowpack was fresh and still high pressure air moved into the region from the northern reaches of Canada and the Arctic. I remember a stretch of well over 30 days in the late 70s when the air temperature did not get above freezing and a few days where it did not rise above 0F. These were the cold winter days that I remember. I greatly anticipated Nor'easters with the potential to cancel school and adversely affect transportation and even cutoff our electricity. It was amazing to me how nature could bring the world to a peaceful, albeit at times uncomfortably cold, standstill. All this because water vapor can condense and freeze into the most beautiful of crystals. The fact that we understand so much about some of these processes, and so little about others, keeps me fascinated to this day.
I have been interested in weather and climate my entire life, for as long as I can remember. Even as a young child I kept weather records and drove my parents crazy. Back in the 1960's there were only 4 major networks on TV in Chicago, and I had it down to a science to view all 4 evening weather reports, even though they played at roughly the same time. Extreme events such as the January 1967 snowstorm in Chicago were major drivers of my interest in the field. Interestingly, I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist, knew I wanted to work for the National Weather Service, and knew that I should go to Washington, DC - all of which came true. One thing I have noticed is that roughly half of meteorologists (especially those that are more interested in physical applications than theory) have similar stories about their lifelong passion for the field.
I started studying oceanography because I love the water and wanted to understand how the oceans work and why they change. I focused on studying the tropical oceans because it seemed more appealing than studying the polar oceans to me. Initially, I studied phenomenon known as "El Niño". El Niño is a change to the tropical Pacific that happens every three to seven years, in which the warm waters of the western equatorial Pacific move to the east and the climate of the globe changes considerably (winters are dry in the Pacific Northwest, wet in California, there are sometimes droughts over India and many other changes). In studying El Niño I got more and more interested in how the ocean and the atmosphere work together to create these changes, and my research interests snowballed from there. Today I continue to study El Niño, but I also try to learn about how greenhouse warming affects our climate, how the Indian monsoon works and how hurricanes change from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.
I took a meteorology course as an elective when I was an undergraduate student. I was always interested in science but found this field very interesting with many unanswered questions.
Joel D. Scheraga
When I first started working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1987, environmental issues were becoming increasingly complex, with the focusing shifting to more global, multimedia, and very long-term concerns. I was excited about the possibility of working on some of the emerging global environmental issues. I was also eager to combine my diverse background in the physical and social sciences to help develop interdisciplinary teams to work on these increasingly complex problems.
I began to work on climate change in 1989, when it became apparent it had the potential to affect every individual in every community around the world. At the time, people imagined climate change to be something that wouldn't happen for another 50 to 100 years. But we quickly came to understand that the climate is already changing, and it's changing more and more rapidly as a result of human activities. I quickly realized that I had an opportunity to be part of a larger team of scientists around the world who could shed light on how climate change affects people everywhere, and help them find ways to respond and adapt to its impacts. I had an opportunity to make a difference in people's lives.
Over time, my appreciation for the critical importance of the work my colleagues and I are doing has risen. We're empowering people to protect their communities and the things they value. We're providing the scientific information that enables them to anticipate the effects of a changing climate, partnering with them to develop alternative strategies for them to adapt to change, and providing tools that can help them incorporate considerations of climate change into their day-to-day decisions.
It truly is rewarding to work on an environmental issue which has been called the "capstone issue for our generation."
Question Four: For me, I love a hot sunny day. For you, what would a perfect weather day look like?
I like the crisp, cool, sunny days that we get in New England in the fall. More specifically, the perfect day would have a low temperature in the upper 40s, a high temperature in the upper 60s to low 70s, plenty of sunshine and a light breeze.
I grew up in Portland Oregon which has many overcast clouds. I prefer the sunny Colorado weather with lots of sunshine like you.
I like rainy weekend mornings with an occasional rumble of thunder. I also really enjoy watching heavy snow fall in big wet flakes. I don't so much like hot windy and dry days but we do get a lot of those days in Oklahoma. A partly cloudy sky near sunset with a temperature of 72F and a dewpoint temperature of 52F is just about perfect weather for me.
This is a very difficult question for me to answer, as I like extreme events and I like living in a place with 4 distinct seasons. However, if you were to ask me which season I favor and what kind of event I prefer, I'd have to go with an old fashioned Northeast Snowstorm. I recognize that most folks prefer tranquil weather, but many meteorologists, including those you see on TV, are exhilarated by the shear force of mother nature.
That's my favorite weather too. And if I can't have hot weather, I'll take a sunny day, with knee-deep powder on a mountain.
I have to agree with you! I also love hot sunny days, but have to say that I find days with early morning thunderstorms exciting.
Joel D. Scheraga
Different people have different notions of what a perfect weather day looks like. For me, there is no single "perfect weather day." It depends on what I would like to do on that day. If I'm in the mood to go cycling, I might enjoy a sunny day, but one that isn't too warm or humid. If I want to go lie on the beach and swim in the ocean, a hot sunny day might be more enjoyable. If I want to go skiing, a cold day with powdery snow on the ground might be preferred.
The differences in people's preferences for climate and weather help explain why they choose to live in or visit different locations. People with little tolerance for cold weather may choose to live in more southern climates. On contrast, people who enjoy skiing will choose to visit or live in locations with colder, snowier climates. It's all about individual preferences!
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