Interview with a Climate Researcher

One summer when Dr. Richard Somerville was just a child, he built a weather station in his family’s backyard. His creation grew out of a fascination for the great power of weather—a phenomenon that affects all of us every day. Using instruments made out of coffee cans, balloons, and rubber bands, young Richard began keeping track of daily weather conditions and questioning how the world’s weather systems worked. As time went on, he began to question more than just the weather—he looked at clouds, oceans, and the world of living things as well. These pursuits led Somerville to the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Today he is a professor of meteorology at the Scripps Institution, which is part of the University of California at San Diego in La Jolla, California.

Q: What exactly is meteorology?
Somerville: Simply put, it is the science of the atmosphere—especially the study of weather and weather forecasting.

Q: What most appeals to you about your job?
Somerville: Probably the most exciting aspect of any scientist’s work involves those few, rare “Eureka!” moments when you realize that you’ve discovered something that no one else on Earth knows about. That’s quite a feeling. It’s also rewarding to know that you’re adding to the knowledge of others, transferring important pieces of information to important people who can use that information to improve this world.

Q: What does your research involve?
Somerville: Well, I do research on the greenhouse effect, on climate changes in general, and on the effects of long-range climate changes. I also study El Niño events and Indian monsoons. I see how these events and phenomena affect people—such as people involved in agriculture. The climate really affects the way people live! I’m also researching whether the activities of humans are affecting the atmosphere. For example, each year, the world’s growing population uses more and more energy by burning coal, oil, natural gas, and wood. When all of these substances are burned, they add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. So I study the atmosphere to see how much the added carbon dioxide is intensifying the greenhouse effect. Then I try to determine how those changes will affect humans. You see, the more we know about the atmosphere, the better we can predict what will happen next.

Q: How are your research data used?
Somerville: Many of my findings can affect public policy. For instance, how should the energy of the world be generated? I can help policymakers explore this question by providing them with data about the effects of fuels such as coal, oil, and gas on the atmosphere. Then I can recommend that they establish policies to reduce human reliance on those fuel sources. I can also encourage the use of resources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power.

Q: What tools do you use to obtain your data?
Somerville: There are two general classes of technology that are most important to my work: satellites and computers. Together these two items have virtually revolutionized this field by hugely expanding what we’ve been able to observe and understand. Satellites, for example, can provide us with a whole different perspective of our world. The photographs generated by a satellite allow us to look at global temperatures as well as specific weather and sea conditions. Data are also collected on clouds, soil, and vegetation. By analyzing these observations, we can monitor changing conditions and identify possible problem areas.

Computers help us make sense of the data. Computer equipment in the satellites helps to answer our questions and helps us better visualize the data. Personal computers help us record and summarize our findings. Then we have “super computers,” which can simulate the motions of the atmosphere and the ocean, and thereby help us answer questions and make predictions. We also have access to ships and airplanes that are loaded with highly specialized equipment. These research platforms can be sent to specific areas of the world to gather more information about a situation or condition.

Q: What are the most frustrating aspects of your job?
Somerville: Other demands that limit the time I spend doing research. There’s a large fraction of time and energy that must be spent making research possible—you have to find money, so you spend lots of time writing proposals and doing other administrative work.

Q: What school subjects turned out to be the most important for your career?
Somerville: You might be surprised. Math and science classes are essential, but in retrospect I value my English courses the most. Scientists are writers—the final products of their research are shown in published papers.

Q: What personal qualities do you think are most essential for a successful person in your field?
Somerville: There are an enormous variety of scientists—some are sloppy, some are organized, some like to work alone, and some in teams. One thing all good scientists have in common, though, is dedication—they all want to do science above anything else. I think Thomas Edison’s famous quotation “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” is really on the mark. Not everyone can be born a genius, but anyone who is really dedicated can have a good career in science.

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