Forecast: a Podcast About Climate Science and Climate Scientists

Igor Heifetz ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

Gabe Vecchi is a world-famous atmospheric scientist with a pretty simple attitude to making progress: In order to do something, you need to do it. And Gabe’s done a lot!

He was born in Boston but grew up in Venezuela, and witnessed the country’s dissolution from an intellectual magnet for South America into a dystopian nightmare. Going into the interview, I wondered about Gabe’s perspective on the anti-science, inward-looking trends we’re now seeing in the US. Are we headed for the same fate?

At this point, it’s impossible to say. But what I can say is that Gabe’s enthusiasm for science is undiminished by current politics. It was, in fact, kind of refreshing to talk to someone outside of the Bay Area echo chamber in which I live. It’s good to see science (and home renovations and new jobs) remaining at the forefront.

Gabe’s grandparents immigrated to Venezuela from Italy, and he lived there until his early teens. Ending up as a scientists might have been inevitable:

I think having [an] engineer and artist [as parents] … the only natural outcome is to be a scientist

And even though Gabe began knowing, as he says, just about nothing, he went on to make some of the major advances in atmospheric dynamics, tropical cyclones and seasonal prediction over the past couple of decades, including the now-famous modeling of a reduced zonal circulation in the equatorial Pacific.

Working in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, with brilliant colleagues like Isaac Held and Suki Manabe, played a part in Gabe’s success. But still, and as so often seems to be the case, some of the big findings arose almost by accident.

By working on the still-not-fully-cracked nut of estimating changes in hurricane frequency and intensity in a warming climate, Gabe and his colleagues ended up with a modeling system with seasonal skill in regional hurricane prediction. The field is now able to resolve the small scale interactions between hurricanes and the large scale environment. Probably, as Gabe says, they wouldn’t have gotten to seasonal hurricane prediction if they’d been trying to do so:

You can’t see things if you look at them directly

As always with forecasting/prediction, it is easy to get carried away. But Gabe has a healthy skepticism for all sorts of modeling, prediction included:

Skill when applied to the past tends to be higher than skill going forward

Most importantly, one should keep a careful eye out for wild-eyed optimism or irrational exuberance:

The better you feel about it the worse it behaves … the probability of misleading yourself can be very high

Now in a multi-disciplinary department at Princeton, Gabe is looking both forwards and backwards. Forwards, to a closer collaboration with the geochemical proxy community, to unravel some of the many competing hypotheses for modern processes. Backwards, to hopefully develop a state-of-the-art yet simple climate model that could be run in a desktop machine by any interested academic, rather than at a super-computing facility.

Either way, there is endless scope for peeking under the mossy rocks of science, or looking for the structural members that we still need to install:

The things that we already know are much less interesting … if I can find something that we don’t know or that is kind of broken, then that’s great