GFDL - Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

“Thinking Big” with Tom Knutson

Tom KnutsonTom Knutson avoids one-dimensional thinking whenever possible, but especially at work. Because the GFDL research meteorologist sees global climate change as much more than a surface temperature issue, he approaches and studies it as a multi-layered phenomenon daily.

As a member of GFDL’s Climate Change, Variability, and Prediction Group, the bulk of Knutson’s research revolves around anthropogenic forcings (due to human activity), such as increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and how they may be altering the earth’s climate.

Knutson has worked at GFDL since 1990. He serves as co-chair of the World Meteorological Organization Expert Team on Climate Impacts on Tropical Cyclones and has authored studies on the potential impact of climate change and hurricanes. Recently, he led a project focused on simulating past and future Atlantic hurricane activity using regional high-resolution models.

In the following interview, Knutson explains why climate change is such a multi-faceted issue, reveals the one natural disaster he has yet to experience and identifies the one book he had trouble putting down.

Why does your research matter?

Through changing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, humans are causing what we think will be a profound climate change over the coming centuries.  This ongoing change — combined with the realization that climate matters to society and ecosystems — opens up a large set of questions that urgently need to be addressed through the scientific process.  So in addition to being very stimulating intellectually, the climate science we’re doing now really matters, especially when you consider the long-term (50 years to multi-century) perspective.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Global climate change research is a “think-big” endeavor, because we’re not just dealing with some local issue like a batch of pollution emerging from some localized source.  We’re dealing with the entire planet and with something (i.e., the climate) that affects practically all the living things and the societies that make their home here.  It’s a problem that touches all nations of the world and that will span generations of humans in its reach.  So if you like to think on big scales and to work on interesting problems, I think this is a great field of pursuit.

Where do you do most of your work?  In a lab?  In field studies?

Most of my work has been done in the lab here at GFDL, particularly working on our computer systems, reading, and collaborating with colleagues on various problems.  An exception is when I travel to meetings, which can be science meetings or meetings involving users of our science information (especially users who need to know about climate impacts).  These meetings can take place pretty much anywhere in the world, which is not surprising considering the broad geographical reach of the problems we work on.  It is interesting that even though most of my work in recent years has dealt with hurricanes and climate, I’ve never personally experienced a full-blown hurricane.  I’m content to observe these powerful storms from afar.

What in your lab could you not live without?

Here at GFDL our computing system is the tool that helps us test our ideas and theories and ultimately to better understand and predict the climate system, through computer simulation.  The computer supports all three key synergistic components of our research (i.e., modeling, observations, and theory) and is especially crucial for our modeling work.  So it would be very hard for us to do our work without an excellent computing system.  Our work also builds on the scientific foundations laid down by our predecessors (and colleagues), which gives us a tremendous leg up compared to where we would be if we were starting from scratch.  So these ingredients — a strong computing environment and the science foundations provided by our predecessors and colleagues — make it possible for us to pursue important science questions now.   It is also hugely useful to be able to meet and discuss ideas with colleagues at our lab and to be able to communicate quickly via email with other colleagues around the world.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be?  Why?

The instrument (or technology) would be one that–using a relatively safe energy source such as fusion (still to be developed) or large-scale solar power–was able to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it as safely and permanently as possible.  With this, and with no financial or energy constraints, we could then attempt to bring CO2 concentrations back down to pre-industrial levels and observe the resultant changes to the climate system.  From this experiment we would learn more about climate sensitivity and perhaps confirm many aspects of the radiative forcing theory of climate change.  And we could do all of this without the hazards posed by our current scenario, in which we are increasing CO2 concentrations dramatically in the global atmosphere, altering the climate system and ocean chemistry without having a clear understanding of all of the impacts, and leaving future generations with a multi-century uncertain legacy of climate impacts and degraded ecosystems.  I like my (hypothetical) experimental approach better than the path we’re currently headed down.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

Although my career has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, I can point to my undergraduate days pondering my future career path in life and thinking about how interesting certain scientific problems were–especially climate change.  I was becoming more aware of the geological evidence for huge glacial/interglacial changes in past climate and the effects that these climate changes had on the landscape and ecosystems, which made the problem of future climate change due to CO2 increases much more real and compelling to me.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

I’m afraid I can’t speak that well to the question of a science career in general, but if one is thinking of pursuing a career in climate science, then I would recommend reading the IPCC Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers as a start, and then trying delving into other parts of the more detailed report (like paleoclimate or climate change detection and attribution) to explore what aspects of the problem seem most exciting to pursue.

What is your personal favorite book?

My favorite is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  It is wonderfully written, and once I was drawn into his tale, I could barely put it down.  As I recall, my main disappointment with Tolkien’s book was that it ended too soon.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

My job involves more international travel than I would have expected.   I’ve also become more involved in long-range research planning and in meeting with various climate change “stakeholders” than I would have imagined at the start.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Yes, outdoors/exercise and the arts.  I spend lot of time outdoors– running, hiking, or just relaxing and enjoying the scenery.  I like modern art or a good book, and my wife and I sing in a (classical) choral group, as I really enjoy experiencing beautiful music.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I would probably have been a manager, as I have some interest in activities like communication and planning.  Whatever the field or position, I like it better when it is geared toward making a positive contribution to society.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

My favorite is Charles Darwin, because through his insights we humans began to understand more fully our true origins and our place among all of the living diversity we see on this planet.  His insights may not have been popular at first to many who considered humans as a much more special species, but his theories had the virtue of being grounded in the scientific method–and grounded in reality–which I think is ultimately more satisfying.