I do not think there is a lot of controversy about the big picture. The ocean's role in climate is pretty well understood on the large scale. There are still questions about the effect of clouds on climate. There is some consensus emerging on the effect of global warming on tropical cyclones. I guess people are now interested in understanding the timescales involved with the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, for example. Not the question if it will melt but how fast. This is not really a controversy but rather a really exciting area of research.
Same thing on land: There are open questions about biochemical cycles in high latitude regions, where you have vast amounts of organic matter stored in frozen soils that may or may not be exposed to the atmosphere. What I mean by this is: as the surface layers thaw, more wetlands could be present. This would mean that the decomposition of organic matter underneath the wetlands produces methane instead of CO2.
And what are the questions, you want to investigate during the coming years?
One key area we are trying to look at now is carbon cycle feedbacks on the long timescale, associated with things like the organic matter being exposed after the thawing of permafrost. Increasing temperatures at high latitudes can expose that previously frozen soil to the atmosphere and produce CO2 or methane. Looking at biochemical feedbacks associated with increasing temperatures is really a fun area to work on. Also, we are looking at the stability of West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets; that also is a quite exciting area of research.
During the last years, more and more scientific disciplines became part of climate science: not only physics or geology but also biology, econometrics and many others. What does it mean to include all these different aspects? How is your experience with this kind of interdisciplinary work?
I view the role of people that develop and use climate models as integrators. I am not involved in field measurements myself but I will have to somehow incorporate these observations indirectly when I develop climate models. Even if I am not collecting the data, I have to understand the language of the people doing that. So there is a lot of learning in my business. I have to read a lot of papers from a lot of different areas. And: I come from a physics background, so when I start to discuss biology, chemistry or economics there are cultural differences—and I do not mean this negatively—there are simply cultural differences between different fields. One has to respect this in interactions with other disciplines.
Biologists or chemists are very influential in building the representations and parametrizations that we incorporate in our climate models. There is no magic recipe on how to engage others in different disciplines. If I need to parametrize a certain feedback (e.g. clouds), I had better go and talk to people who work in cloud physics. I inform them what I would like to do and then they suggest some approach. They might even say my approach doesn't make sense. Hopefully through discussions we will be able to figure out a way to proceed. Finding the right person to work with is by far the most important aspect of any collaboration.
Prof. Weaver, thank you for the interesting discussion.
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