Monday, December 15, 2014

Cobb lab research at AGU Fall Meeting, 2014

The Cobb lab is well-represented at #AGU2014, with myself, Jessica Moerman, and Pamela Grothe all presenting various aspects of our paleoclimate research. There are also many Cobb lab alumni and affiliates here (see below). 

Below is a list detailing when and where Cobb lab research will be featured:

Me:  "What did the largest volcanic eruption in 2 million years do to
 climate? Stalagmites weigh in."

PP31B-1131Signatures of the Toba super-volcano eruption in Borneo stalagmite geochemistry: a multi-proxy approach (ABSTRACT)
Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall

*Prospective postdocs and grad students are encouraged to meet me at this poster session PP31B on Wed morning between 8-11am in Moscone West.

**Don't miss the Monday 7:30pm screening of Years of Living Dangerously, Episode 3, featuring yours truly in MW 3002. A post-screening panel will feature myself, Chris Mooney (science writer), Joseph Romm, Heidi Cullen (science advisor, Years), and David Gelber (Executive Producer, Years).

Jessica Moerman:  "What do water isotopes really tell us about climate? And why?"

  • PP31D-1171The role of remote versus local climatic influences in shaping seasonal to interannual rainfall isotopic variations in northern Borneo (ABSTRACT)
  • Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 Moscone West Poster Hall

Jessica will also convene the following session:
  • PP31DWater Isotope Systematics: Improving Paleoclimate Interpretations I, II, and III
  • Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20  Moscone West Poster Hall
    Wednesday, December 17, 201401:40 PM - 03:40 PM Moscone West 2008
    Wednesday, December 17, 201404:00 PM - 06:00 PM  Moscone West 2008

Pamela Grothe "How can we date 10 times more coral samples at 10 times less cost? And can you trust the resulting dates?"
  • PP41D-1428A Comparison of Rapid-Screen 14C Dates and U/Th Dates from Fossil Corals: Implications for Paleoclimate Reconstruction (ABSTRACT)
  • Thursday, December 18, 2014, Moscone West-Poster Hall

Link to Pam's poster here.

Here are the appearances of Cobb lab alumni and/or close affiliates:

Bronwen Konecky (currently jointly advised NSF-AGS postdoc fellow)
Multiproxy Records of Indo-Pacific Climate and Environmental Change from Lake Towuti, Indonesia, Since 60 Kyr BP (ABSTRACT)
Wednesday, December 17, 2014 , Moscone West-2010

ENSO and Indo-Pacific Water Isotopes: Observations, Modeling, and Implications for Proxy Reconstructions (ABSTRACT)

Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM  Moscone West Poster Hall


Samantha Stevenson (currently jointly advised NSF-OCE postdoc fellow)

  • PP33A-1210Evaluating the ENSO Impact on Last Millennium Megadroughts Using Improved Coral Forward Models (ABSTRACT)
    • Wednesday, December 17, 201401:40 PM - 06:00 PM Moscone West Poster Hall


Jessica Conroy (former postdoc, currently Asst. Prof. U. Illinois)
  • PP31D-1167Paired Vapor-Precipitation Isotope Data from Manus, Papua New Guinea (ABSTRACT)

Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall

  • PP34A-01A 2000-year high-resolution lacustrine record of El Niño Southern Oscillation from the center of the Eastern Equatorial Pacific region (Genovesa crater lake, Galapagos Islands) (ABSTRACT)
  • Wednesday, December 17, 201404:00 PM - 04:15 PM Moscone West 2010


Julien Emile-Geay (former postdoc, currently Asst. Prof, Univ. Southern California)
PP44B-01The Paleoclimate Uncertainty Cascade: Tracking Proxy Errors Via Proxy System Models. (ABSTRACT)

Julien will also be hosting a multi-session extravaganza on climate of the last millennia:
  • PP21EClimate of the Common Era I
  • Se
    Tuesday, December 16, 201408:00 AM - 10:00 AM Moscone West 2008

  • --------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Jud Partin (former PhD student, currently Research Scientist at UT-Austin)
    • A11B-3023Varied Spatial Response of the SPCZ on Multi-decadal Timescales over the past 500 Years (ABSTRACT)
    • Monday, December 15, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall


    Nele Meckler (fellow Mulu stalagmite addict and field buddy, currently at U. Bergen)
    • PP31B-1130Comparison of temperature proxies in tropical stalagmites (ABSTRACT)
    • Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We're live-blogging from the field!

Cobb lab folk are now on Christmas Island, in the middle of the Pacific, conducting their paleoclimate research. We will be blogging at, the dedicated blog for the larger expedition effort, which includes four other PIs. Please follow our activities there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is 'outreach' a dirty word in academia?

On August 9th I found myself sitting in a courtyard at Google's Palo Alto campus, leading an animated discussion about "outreach" with a broad cross-section of geeky, articulate science types.
Enjoying some adult beverages at the Googleplex

It was my first Science Foo Camp ("Scifoo" for short) -- an invitation-only event sponsored by Google, O'Reilly Media, Digital Science, and the Nature Publishing Group. There were 250 invitees from around the world, ranging from academic scientists like me to science writers, foundation representatives, science artists, even science comedians and a science magician (perhaps my favorite). It felt like a brain vacation. I let my brain "play" all weekend long, while my body enjoyed delicious and abundant food and drink.

The campers themselves set the agenda for the meeting, by proposing sessions on over-sized post-its tacked to a huge schedule board (see pic). While there were a few serious topics, including a great session on "Reproducibility in Science", most were creative spin-offs on attendees' professional
A schedule board at SciFoo14
interests, such as "Beyonce and Science" or "De-extinction:  should we bring extinct things back to life?" or "What happens in the last 3 minutes before Singularity?" or "Find deep friendships (and love?) in 45 minutes" (which I missed, because, ironically, I was deep in conversation with a new acquaintance - but see this article to get an idea of the approach).

I was nervous proposing a session entitled "Why is 'outreach' a dirty word in science academia? and How can we change this?", but felt like I might get some creative solutions out of this crowd. You see, scientists are rewarded by the numbers of papers (and numbers of citations, at enlightened institutions) and the amount of external funding they receive. They are not rewarded for time and effort spent communicating science to the public, working with K-12 teachers, meeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill, blogging about science, etc. So why "waste" your time? At worst, I expected to receive a few sympathetic pats on the back from similarly tortured souls who, like me, are committed to 'outreach' despite clear disincentives. [I wrote a previous post outlining these disincentives, for those that want more detail.]

To my delight, the session drew 20+ enthusiastic participants, ranging from graduate students to TV science personalities to academic scientists to professional science writers. The first order of business was to dispense with the term "outreach" in favor of "engagement"-- signaling a movement away from the model whereby the Ivory Tower dispenses Knowledge to the ignorant masses, and towards a model defined by sustained conversations (by definition bi-directional) about the wonder and value of science and its applicability in our everyday lives. These days, "engagement" is embodied in ambitious citizen-science programs like PaleoQuest's Sharkfinder initiative, whereby folks can hunt for fossil fish teeth in unsorted sands (my 7-yr-old daughter was ecstatic to find a 3mm-long tooth in her kit last night.)

Attendees shared inspiring stories of how they had channeled their personal passion for public engagement into reality, and even, in some cases, institutional change. There was Dr. Sarah Imari Walker, an Asst. Prof. at ASU who had co-founded (Social Action for a Grassroots Astrobiology Network), an e-community made of scientists and interested members of the public. All-but-doctored Asha Devos heavily leverages her blue whale research in some high-profile public engagement activities. Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, who had served as the President's Senior Advisor on Science Engagement at U. Toronto for two years, emphasized the need for public engagement training of both students and faculty, supported by institutional resources. I was especially intrigued by the UK's Wellcome Trust, who have dedicated some of their funding exclusively to public engagement activities, awarded competitively as supplements to funded research grants. They even have a whole page dedicated to public engagement! This is quite different from the NSF model, wherein "Broader Impacts" scores are considered in ranking a proposal's merit. While some researchers pursue such activities in earnest, the vast majority pay lip service to NSF's goals for its Broader Impacts. For example, many simply vow to incorporate their research into their undergraduate classes. Gee thanks -- nothing says "taxpayer value" quite like putting 20 undergrads to sleep with the technical details of your research.

We all agreed that while public engagement is not for everyone, those who choose to do it should be given the resources to do it effectively, and rewarded for their successes. Every university has an Office of Communications or Public Relations, but effective public engagement does not start or end with a press release. Universities should be encouraging their graduate and postdoctoral students, as well as their faculty, to explore the vast landscape of public engagement, when they are so inclined, and provide training to make them as effective as possible. Unfortunately, such activities are too often seen as a distraction from "real work", as several young Scifoo scientists lamented, and as confirmed by one very senior scientist at the session.

Why do young scientists participate in public engagement activities, you might ask, when they have so much to lose? First and foremost, these young scientists are driven by the need to keep science relevant and exciting to the public, and the personal satisfaction that comes from effective engagement. [Editor's note:  much feedback on the importance of inspiring the next generation of scientists, as well as informing the public/policymakers on issues of high societal relevance, like climate change.] But they also sense that the ground is shifting beneath them, as science academia begins to recognize the rewards of broad and deep engagement with the public. While public engagement acumen is not considered in hiring decisions nor promotion and tenure at present, these young scientists felt certain that it soon would be. Effective communication is a learned skill that takes years to develop, so they are building their toolkits well before the market forces materialize.

A "normal" scientist
As a senior academic in my field, I was deeply moved by their faith in the evolution of a system that is notoriously slow to change. Buoyed by reports of creative, new engagement platforms and real-world institutional change, I left the session feeling like I was part of a not-so-secret society. We may look like we're "normal" scientists, but we are slowly and steadily pushing at the frontiers of scientific culture, hoping that one day, public engagement will be nurtured and celebrated across all institutions of higher education.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

All eyes on the tropical Pacific

Is the next major El Niño event already underway?

The chatter amongst the El Niño experts has ticked up significantly this week, with excitement building about whether this fall will witness the arrival of The Big One.

Why all the fuss? And what are the chances of a major El Niño event next winter?

While considerable uncertainty surrounds the conception of an El Niño event, most scientists agree that it helps to have the following features in place:

1) An ocean that is primed for an event (enough time elapsed since the last major event). The last Big One was the 1997-1998 El Niño, and before that was the 1982-1983 El Niño, and before that the 1972-1973 El Niño. By this simple metric, we are due for a Big One. Given that the last moderate El Niño event was 2009-2010, we are at least due for One. Some El Niño scientists describe the pacemaker for the El Niño-Southern Oscillation events as a "recharge oscillator", whereby heat accumulates in the western Pacific ocean until it is discharged to the atmosphere by a cascade of positive feedbacks triggered by . . . (see #2 below).

2) A strong burst of westerly winds along the equator in the west Pacific. Usually, trade winds blow steadily from the east to the west ('easterly' winds) across the tropical Pacific, and they maintain the temperature structure of the equatorial Pacific:  cool waters in the East, and warm waters in the West. Essentially, the trade winds keep the 'thermocline' (the boundary between warm surface waters and the cool deeper waters) close to the surface in the eastern Pacific. When a burst of westerly winds occurs in the western Pacific, it triggers a 'downwelling wave' that propagates eastward along the equatorial thermocline. When it reaches the eastern Pacific, it pushes the thermocline to deeper depths, leading to warmer sea-surface temperatures in this region roughly 2 months after the westerly wind burst. [For more information on ENSO physics, see this recent and exhaustive review by some ENSO heavy-hitters, in press in "Coral Reefs of the Eastern Pacific" (Springer).]

At a certain point (and this is where the mystery comes in), the warming in the central to eastern Pacific is strong enough to undermine the strength of the trade winds themselves. The thermocline further deepens in the east, and surface ocean temperatures warm even more. At that point, the system is moving inevitably towards an El Niño event that will reach its maturity sometime between November and February - a well-choreographed and now-familiar dance between the tropical Pacific atmosphere and ocean.

So what's got all the experts staring at the tropical Pacific data this week?
Well, this, as measured by an array of moored ocean buoys spanning the tropical Pacific, the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean array:

This time-longitude plot tracks the history of westerly wind events, and where they have occurred along the equator. You can see that we are in the midst of a very strong westerly wind burst that began roughly 2 weeks ago in the western equatorial Pacific. 

 To put the current wind event in context, here is a time-longitude plot of westerly winds over the last 20 years, again from the TAO array:

I've flagged the 1997/98 El Niño event, which is the poster-child for the Westerly Wind Burst model of El Niño inception. Indeed, the strength and the timing of the current westerly wind burst is eerily similar to those that occurred in spring of 1997. In 1997, strong warming was observed in the eastern Pacific by late spring.

It will be several months before we know whether The Big One is on its way, but a moderate-sized El Niño event seems almost inevitable. Indeed, a full ensemble of statistical and dynamical forecasts of ENSO can be seen below, courtesy of the IRI, with most models projecting El Niño conditions by JJA (otherwise known as boreal summer).

If this El Niño is The Big One, then this is the chance of a lifetime for scientists to get out in the field and collect data that can illuminate the physical lifecycle of such an extraordinary event and its global impacts on weather patterns, ecosystems, and human systems. This may be as much advance warning as we will ever have - 6 precious months.

Unfortunately, funding agencies are ill-equipped to meet the needs of such "rapid response" science. The federal research vessels are booked out years in advance. Even if someone could convince NSF to mount a multi-disciplinary armada to the tropical Pacific, there is always the risk that it might not develop into The Big One. Nonetheless, whisper campaigns are mushrooming up as we speak, aiming to make an urgent and compelling case that the benefits far outweigh the risks of pursuing such science. Where traditional funding avenues fail, foundation support and/or access to ships of opportunity (yachts or for-hire research vessels) may allow some of the most pressing and low-hanging science to go forward.

Such a coordinated observational campaign is all the more pressing because the TAO array - the only source of direct observations of the tropical Pacific atmospheric winds and subsurface ocean temperature so critical to El Niño's evolution - is losing buoys at an alarming rate because the ship that serviced them has been sidelined by NOAA's funding gaps. Data return has dropped to 36% (M. McPhaden, pers. comm.) - the plots you see above are heavily infilled using the few buoys that remain. Just today, the TAO homepage posted a disclaimer warning of poor data quality. This depressing moment in the history of US ocean science is discussed in a recent Nature News piece.

So, will the tropical Pacific ocean and atmosphere conceive The Big One this spring? I don't know, but it certainly has gone way past flirtation.

Additional links
NOAA issued an "El Niño watch" on March 6, read it here.
Jeff Masters has a great Wunderground blog post on the March 6 NOAA release.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A scientist's dilemma: to tweet or not to tweet?

[Below is a loose summary of my comments in the “Engaging Social Media” panel at the AAAS meeting in Chicago, with superstars Maggie Koerth-Baker and Danielle N. Lee. My slides are here. Thanks to all for the Twitter outpouring of support and new followers!]

It’s 2010, and I’m sitting in a room with 18 other young scientists as part of the inaugural PopTech Science Fellows program. Its aim is to develop “a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders.” They had packed our day full of presentations by marketing experts, journalists, social media gurus, etc. But they forgot to ask us one key question:  "Is building a significant public presence one of your goals?" After some intense discussion, the common answer was "I'm not sure…"

Frustrating, right? Don't we, most of us newly tenured, feel an obligation to communicate our findings, our passion, and keep science relevant? Of course we do. 

But here are some of the things that make scientists uneasy about social media in particular:

1. Discomfort/stigma associated with (non-traditional) self-promotion. It's all well and good to shamelessly plug your results at a conference, repeatedly cite yourself in publications, place well-timed calls to program managers, etc. [Ladies, apparently we do not do this enough, to our great detriment.] It's quite another to actively seek out the public spotlight, to court media attention. Deep down, we'd all like to be that modest, noble scientist whose results changed the world based on their own scientific merit. "Shouldn't the quality of my science speak for itself?" If we do seek a larger audience for our work, is that short-circuiting, or making less relevant, the peer evaluation process that crowns blockbusters and condemns duds?

2a. Danger of over-selling societal relevance of results. This is especially dangerous territory in climate change science, wherein people constantly want to know what your work means for future climate change projections.
2b. Danger of over-simplifying results to the point of inaccuracy. Following on the last point, climate science communication can be a mine-field. "So basically your results confirm a link between X impact and rising CO2, right?" or just as problematic "It seems your work really calls into question the link between X impact and rising CO2, right?" Communicating your results in the context of uncertainties can quickly lead to the listener saying "So basically, there is still a lot of uncertainty." No… Arghghghgh!

3. Fear of the scientist as advocate; loss of objectivity. This issue flames up on Twitter every now and again, because it can never be fully resolved. We are scientists. But we are also humans with well-founded beliefs about the world, many of which stem from our profound understanding of certain scientific facts, like that CO2 is warming the planet and things will get a lot worse before they get better. There is an obvious tension in communicating that fact and its implications - it is very hard to avoid advocating for significant and immediate emissions cuts as an obvious response to the magnitude of the threat. Gavin Schmidt gave a wonderful talk at AGU a few months ago on this general topic, you can see it here, including links to reactions in the blogosphere. 

4. Who has the time anyway? [subtext:  there are no tangible rewards for such efforts] A bullet-proof argument against engagement, at face value. Our worth is measured in # of publications (and their impact, if your institution is enlightened) and $ of grants, with 'marketability' and salary scaling accordingly. Women like myself, as a mother of four young children, fare especially poorly in these quantitative metrics already (the subject of a future post), so there is a clear negative incentive to spend time on social media, which robs time from your sputtering research program. For those of us who do engage, we can never attribute X research or career development directly to our social media engagement, because we are not running a control experiment in parallel.

So why embark on such a fool's journey?
I can't speak for all scientists out there blogging and tweeting, but here's why I made the leap:

As a climate scientist, I strongly feel an obligation to communicate the facts that I know, and their implications. Enough said.

I want to be accessible, in two different ways. First, I want to make myself available as a resource for the public, to answer questions, offer to speak at public venues, etc. Second, I want the public to understand that climate scientists are humans too! 99% of us are not crazy ideologues nor emotionless robots. I want to add another face to the phrase "climate scientist" -- one of a somewhat frazzled Mom trying to raise four reasonable humans and provide a few clues about the workings of our climate system.

I have some great stories to tell. My blog lets me illustrate the beauty and adventure of my fieldwork, in a story-telling format. See these posts, authored by students. As proud as I am of my lab's recent publications, they are impersonal, inaccessible, and do not tell the story of our research. 

I want to help change the culture (and structures) of science regarding 1) public engagement and 2) women in science. Yes, I am willing to spend a lot of spare time that I don't have on Twitter and blogging, on trips to Capitol Hill, in K-12 classrooms, and even in front of Hollywood cameras, in pursuit of these goals. Some will call me crazy. Some will call me self-serving. Taking the plunge means growing some thick skin (easier to do with tenure), while keeping your eyes on the long-term prize.

And as for those uncertain PopTech Science Fellows, the majority of us took the plunge, some more wholeheartedly than others. See Twitter handles and links for some of my friends below. They rock.

Photo of 2010 PopTech Science Fellows, including (from left) Sean Gourley,
Gidon EshelAmro Hamdoun, Sarah Fortune, myself, and Sinan Aral