Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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My thesis: friend or foe?

Bound and ready to submit!

Bound and ready to submit!

Last Monday I submitted my PhD thesis. I walked over to the Examinations Office in the centre of campus, up a few flights of stairs, handed a big old pile of paper over to the secretary there, signed a form, and that was it. I started my PhD in October 2010, and according to my notebook I wrote the first few tentative words of my thesis in June 2012.

I have heard others tell tales of the looming monstrosity their thesis became in their life, constantly bearing down on them. The folk wisdom of the PhD student is that your thesis is your enemy, and that every day you have to do battle with it, to subjugate it and wrestle it into some kind of coherent shape. To be honest, it never felt that way to me. I followed the standard routine chapter by chapter: outline, concept map, make figures, write text, proofread and edit, send to supervisors, revise. When I started blogging I had planned to use it to describe the process of writing a thesis as it happened: a ‘stop-motion’ thesis, as I called it then. It turns out that the process is a largely uneventful one, churning through the routine described above.

Occasionally this process broke down. There were times when I felt mentally and physically sluggish, so I took a short break – an afternoon off, perhaps – to refocus. It helped that I was still doing little bits of analysis quite late into my PhD. I had done enough to be content, but had a few extra things that were worth doing since I had some spare time. These tasks were pleasant distractions and allowed me to keep my mind active without stressing it out with major pieces of work with real and imminent deadlines. My thesis was never my friend, but it wasn’t my enemy either.

So, for me at least, writing a thesis hasn’t been an epic climactic undertaking. It’s been built up bit by bit, and I’ve worked without putting myself under crippling pressure. I think the academic environment here at the Department of Meteorology really helped: my supervisors provided encouragement, advice and calming words when they were needed, while the rich programme of seminars and group meetings reminded me that I was also there to learn, not just to write a big book and plonk it on someone’s desk.

As I walked back to my office after submitting my thesis I did feel noticeably ‘lighter’. Although it hadn’t been a stressful experience, getting rid of it still felt good. I am now free to do things for their own sake, rather than the artificial goal of a document for examination.

On the subject of examination, I still have my viva (or thesis defence) ahead. In the UK this takes the form of an oral examination by two examiners: the main one from another institution and the other from one’s own (who also takes the role of a moderator). The candidate is quizzed on the details of their thesis in order to check whether it really is their own work and whether they have the depth of knowledge befitting a PhD. It doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience but at the same time I’m looking forward to discussing my work with others. Much like the process of writing is pleasurable if one puts aside the fact it’s for a thesis, I hope the process of discussion my work will be pleasurable if I put aside the fact it determines whether or not I get a PhD!

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A year of throwing stuff into the Internet and seeing what bounces back

It’s just over a year since I published my very first blog post, and set up my Twitter account.

When I started blogging I was excited by the novelty of it all and posted about once a week. Sometimes my posts were good, sometimes they weren’t. I wasn’t too bothered. Then I started to slow down. Partly this was the novelty wearing off, but partly it was the realisation that people might just read this stuff. Of course, that’s what we hope, but as I learned more about blogging the more I realised that it was possible to say some rather silly which don’t do one’s reputation much good. This is more likely to happen if you have a big readership (which I don’t), but the beauty of the Internet is even obscure content can be shot to prominence through nothing more than a few re-tweets. As a result I’ve become a bit more cautious about what I say.

Sometimes, though, it’s better to post something rough than not post at all. It’s good to get comments on things, and the only way to do that is to post. Sometimes I do throw stuff out there that’s not particularly good. Sometimes it’s little more than some stream-of-thought opinions given the once-over for spelling and grammar. I hope I make it clear when I’m in this mode – perhaps I should put some sort of disclaimer on these posts!

Twitter has been a very positive experience for me. Yes, it can be a time-sink. Yes, it can be inane. But those aren’t problems associated with Twitter itself, but how you use it. It’s my fault I waste so much time on Twitter. I’m getting better at managing it though. And the inanity can be guarded against by careful choice of who you follow. But the overall conclusions is that there are people (and things) I know now that I wouldn’t have known had I not been on Twitter. Interactions on Twitter can be incredibly useful. I found the EGU 2013 General Assembly to be a revelation. There was this undercurrent of voices on the Internet which enhanced the whole experience for me. I could dip into this current to hear highlights from other sessions, interesting opinions, news I would otherwise have missed, and learn the names of the people doing really awesome science.

I’m going to end with a few of my favourite posts, a couple of my least-favourite (self-criticism is always good) and some goals for the future.

Best

  1. Storms are like cake – this was fun to write. It’s a mixture of quotes from other people are some commentary of my own on the classic analogies used for the difference between weather and climate.
  2. The working day of a PhD student – I took the scientific approach to my work by recording, for one month, what I was doing when I was at work. There was nothing too surprising there, but it was really fun to put together. I suppose the headline conclusion is that you don’t need to be working much more than 9 to 5 to get a PhD!
  3. Tuning the climate of a global model – my first post, so it’s a little significant. I thought it would be a good idea to write occasional layman’s summaries of important or interesting papers. I should do more of this type of post!

Worst

I’m only doing one here – I don’t want to whip myself up into some kind of frenzy of self-hate. In ‘Clandestine geoengineering is real’ I tried to pretend I was a proper science news commentator. I don’t think it worked. I mainly have an issue with the title, which is a bit too sensationalistic about an issue which requires more subtlety.

Oh go on then, I’ll have another. Climate policy is a question of values as much as it is a question of science was basically a ‘what I think about…’ post. I gave it quite a bit of thought and stand by most of the stuff I said, but now I cringe a little when I think about this post. I think it’s because I’m conscious of the fact anyone can (and does) spout their opinions on the Internet. I want to offer something a bit more thoughtful and useful than the standard stream-of-consciousness stuff, but I don’t always succeed.

Future plans

  1. Paper reviews. They’re useful for me to write and might be useful for others. A no-brainer really!
  2. Stuff about academic life. This was supposed to be a big theme of this blog but I have trouble writing a post about it that isn’t completely banal. Perhaps that tells you all you need to know.
  3. Original science. I want to share some interesting results using this blog. A few things have discouraged me from doing this so far: concern about whether the work is good enough if it’s a casual note, and issues with subsequently publishing the work in a paper if it’s a major piece of science.


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New chapters and foreign lands

By January of this year a major chunk of my PhD work was winding to an end. I had spent a long while looking at the effect of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering on the circulation of the stratosphere, which will form the second (and probably biggest) of the three results chapters in my PhD thesis. At the start of my project I had spent a lot of time reading about stratospheric dynamics and it’s now a somewhat familiar area to me. Well, almost. I still find some chunks counter-intuitive, and sometimes downright baffling. But at least it’s baffling in a familiar way.

We are always reluctant to move away from the familiar. But the work for my final results chapter required that I take the plunge into material and theory that was very much unfamiliar. I was going to look at the impacts of geoengineering on the tropospheric circulation. I eased myself into it by thinking about the tropospheric jet streams first. I at least have some grounding in this area. The dynamics of the midlatitude jet streams is somewhat similar to the dynamics of the stratosphere, and my undergraduate degree in Meteorology has quite a heavy emphasis on the theoretical underpinning of it all. The work on the jet was a nice transition.

Recently (over the past month or so) I have been thinking about precipitation. Especially tropical precipitation. Now, the Earth’s Tropics are meteorologically very different from the midlatitudes. In the midlatitudes the Coriolis Force is a significant effect and weather is determined by large scale wavelike motions producing depressions and anticyclones. Rainfall is mostly frontal in nature. In the Tropics the Coriolis Force is negligible. As a consequence we don’t usually see very large horizontal temperature gradients. This means we don’t see large, rotating weather systems. Rain comes from convective storms, on a much smaller scale than midlatitude frontal depressions. There is so much moisture in the air in the Tropics that the vertical temperature profile pretty much everywhere shows evidence of the release of heat when water vapour condenses to form rain. This forms a characteristic moist adiabatic temperature profile (see image below). Without a strong Coriolis Force this temperature profile is spread over the Tropical belt, so we see it even outside the rain-producing regions.

In order to interpret my model results I had to learn to think differently. Intuitions learned from midlatitude dynamics don’t apply this close to the Equator.

Learning new theory can be pretty intimidating. It’s difficult to know which paper to read first. Sometimes I find myself feeling paralysed. I have a pile of things to read but keep having to refer to different sources to understand terminology, or to get to the bottom of some ‘obvious’ physical understanding not fully explained in one piece of research. Then I took a different tack. I went to see one of the hundreds of other people working in the Department of Meteorology.

This department has experts on any conceivable area, and now, when I’m learning new theory, this is becoming invaluable. In a single hour with a researcher in tropical meteorology I ‘got’ it. I understood the fundamental differences between tropical and midlatitude thinking. Now I can read those papers with confidence. Now I understand the terminology, and a little of the intuition as well. Self-teaching works well (and is entirely necessary for a PhD student) but spending a little time with an expert can help one learn how to teach oneself. This is much the same as, how, when learning a foreign language, you must first learn enough to communicate on a basic level. Once you have that, you can begin to immerse yourself, to learn from conversation with native speakers. The amount of learning that goes on increases exponentially with time. You learn far more from native speakers. But you need to do that initial bit of work to access this higher plane of learning.

Talking of foreign lands, I will soon be off to the 2013 EGU (European Geosciences Union) General Meeting in Vienna. It’s a colossal conference (nearly 12,000 people attended last year) and I’m sure the experience will be educational, entertaining, confusing and exhausting. I’m sure I could list adjectives forever on that one. I will try to write some blog posts and Tweets during the conference, reflecting on what it’s like for a naive young PhD student to be launched into one of the world’s biggest academic conferences.


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Global warming or climate change?

Sometimes the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are used interchangeably in everyday conversation. I don’t think there is too much of a difference if one is talking generally about the human-caused increase in global average temperature and its associated impacts. Nevertheless, they do describe different things.

Global warming. It’s a warming that has to be global. Obviously. It doesn’t have to be a year-on-year increase in temperature. We have no more reason to expect every year to be hotter than the last than we do to expect every month, or every day to be hotter than the last. There are other causes of variation in temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the switching of the tropical Pacific from a heat-absorbing La Nina to a heat-giving El Nino, and so on. But the central point here is that it strictly describes just the temperature of the Earth.

Climate change. This is a little harder to define. ‘Climate‘ is the average conditions in the atmosphere (‘what we expect’). It is not limited to temperature. Sure, temperature is important, but so is rainfall. So is the wind. ‘Climate change’ encompasses all these. The climate is never entirely stationary. It can change subtly over time or it can undergo wild swings such as those the Earth saw during its Ice Ages. No climate scientist claims that climate change can only be caused by humans.

I think ‘global warming’ is a better term to use unless one needs to explicitly include non-temperature effects on climate. Granted, it does imply (incorrectly) that it includes year-on-year warming. But it also encapsulates the problem more concisely than ‘climate change’, which can feel like a vague buzzword. As I have explained, it’s not vague, it just includes things other than temperature effects. It’s useful because some of the most significant impacts of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels might not be temperature effects. They might be related to droughts, storms, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and so on.

The term ‘climate change’ certainly has its place if you genuinely need to go beyond temperature and include all the impacts of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. If you are talking specifically about sea-level rise, talk about ‘sea-level rise associated with global warming’, not generically about ‘climate change’. That’s because the single best way to get people to understand what you’re talking about is to, you know, tell them what you’re talking about.

EDIT: NASA disagrees with my preference.


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My PhD: What happens if we use new ways to stop warming?

Yesterday I attempted to use the Up-Goer Five text editor to summarise what I do. It only allows you to use the thousand most common words in the English language. This restriction often contorts language in odd ways. I struggled because my description really does rely on using certain technical words. Specifically, ‘greenhouse gases’ and ‘aerosols’. I discovered that one can enclose technical words in quotation marks to force the editor to allow them, but that seems a bit like cheating.

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what one calls things. The weakest part of my attempt (below) is the confusing use of ‘stuff’ (which causes warming) and ‘other stuff’ (which causes cooling). I suppose I should have just written stuff A and stuff B. Unfortunately ‘warming stuff’ wasn’t allowed.

We make the air and the ground warmer by burning stuff which goes into the air. This stuff stops the air cooling a bit . It also changes winds and rain. Making the air warmer and changing winds causes problems because we are used to things being as they are. There are things to do to stop warming but we are not good at doing them. A new idea to stop warming is to put other stuff high in the sky. It might make it less warm but not in all places. Also, the winds and rain might still change and so even if we put the other stuff in the sky we still have to deal with changes. This is a problem. I want to know how the changes from burning stuff are different from the changes we get when we put the other stuff in the air to stop the warming. I also want to know whether different types of stuff (which also stop warming) change the winds and rain less. This will help us decide if we want to put other stuff up there to stop warming.

(If this slightly muddled introduction has piqued your interest, click around the blog for more information or visit my website.)

I realised how simple the idea is. The details are hideously (and perhaps prohibitively) complex, but the basics are all there. Writing this summary was a good exercise. In real life I might not be so restricted in vocabulary, but there are times when I am restricted by time and the interest and knowledge level of the person listening to me. Writing something like this is part of the all-important training to clearly put out the required information.


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Writing – don’t be shy

When I started my PhD I had a simple plan in my head for how I thought it would go.

Year 1: Preliminary research, setting up the problem and gaining the knowledge base required to analyse my future results.

Year 2: Results come flooding in.

Year 3: Begin by pulling together the material I have generated and putting it into coherent form. A concentrated slog of writing, then I would be ready to submit.

Like all plans, it turned out to be wrong. It was probably useful in some sense, but my project has not followed the trajectory I set out in my head late in 2010. I actually had a substantial chunk of results (enough to write a paper) by the end of my first year. My second year was quite a barren time in terms of results, but highly educational. Now, in my third year, I am writing parts of my thesis before the model runs which will provide the bulk of two of the three results chapters are even finished.

I ended up starting my thesis earlier than expected because I had had some setbacks with the climate model I was using. Reading’s IGCM is a useful model but it has little documentation. Learning to use the model had as much in common with the oral traditions of the Icelandic sagas as it had with modern forms of written communication.

The long and short of it is that I had a lot of downtime while I was waiting for model test runs to complete, restarting crashed runs and so on. It took me around nine months from being introduced to the model to completing the final ‘results’ runs. The final runs themselves only took a month to run.

I found myself with some time on my hands. I could have done some tangential reading, but I find it hard to stay focused that way, and I don’t think I’m particularly good at learning that way. I learn much better with purpose behind me. For example, I learned a lot about radiation modelling a few months ago when I was writing the section of my thesis describing the code I was using, even though I had been using it since late 2010. Having to write it down forced me to re-examine what I did and didn’t know and to ensure my knowledge was up to scratch.

Early on in my PhD, while I was doing ‘exploratory’ reading and research, my supervisors encouraged me to write little reports. They told me it was good practice. Not only did it make me learn my stuff, it also helped them stay up to speed with the literature using my concise reviews. Also, some (but not all) of it could end up being slotted straight into my thesis. I ended up writing a few of these reports in my first two years. Some of them aren’t much use. Either the writing is too sloppy, or the results and/or analysis has changed. But one – a review of microphysical processes affecting sulphate aerosols – was indeed suitable to go straight into my thesis. Bam. A whole subsection. Done. And I wrote it in my first year!

I was also fortunate enough to have some interesting results by the end of my first year. Encouraged by my supervisors, I wrote a short paper about them. It was exciting for a young researcher to have a publication in a fine journal like Geophysical Research Letters. Re-reading the paper today there are quite a few things I would have changed. The figures could be improved and some of the methodology is needlessly fiddly. Nevertheless, it was another opportunity to write up a chunk of my future thesis. Even better, the quality of the work was somewhat assured since it got through peer review at GRL.

I have a spare couple of days while I run some diagnostics programs on my model runs, so I am writing this material into my thesis. It’s not quite as seamless as I wanted. The style of a thesis is more conversational than a paper (which is a shame – papers seem to be required to be difficult to read sometimes), so need to change that. I also have no space constraints, so I can expand on discussion if I thnk it’s appropriate. But even though I need to make changes, the main ideas and the deep thought behind this chapter of my thesis has already been done. It’s a good feeling.

It is not always possible to write a paper during your PhD. Sometimes it only comes together into a nice story later on. Nevertheless, I think it’s a very good idea to keep writing during your PhD. It helps drill information into your mind and saves you some work later on. It gives you a bit of variety in your everyday work. Your writing will improve, and, who knows, you might even like it.


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Don’t stick to the plan

Plans are useless, but planning is everything.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

I failed to take my own advice today. I wrote a substantial part of my thesis section on a climate model I am using without planning it. No outline, no concept map, nothing.

Sticking rigidly to the plan rarely works because you made your plan in your head and the real world doesn’t work the same as the one in there. That doesn’t mean planning is useless. Aspects of your plan might go awry, but it is unlikely to be entirely wrong. The plan helps formulate the problem clearly in your head and provide a path forward. You might deviate from the inital path, but it helps to have a few points of reference along the way (especially at the start).

In my defence, this section was a simple one. I was comparing the output from the IGCM‘s simulation of the present-day climate with observational and reanalysis data. I had already made all my figures; all I had to do was talk about them. Model assessment is rarely an exciting part of scientific writing. It is necessary, but there are no exciting results to present and discuss. This section answers the question ‘is the model alright?’. The answer is ‘yes, just about’.

In my thesis I have to be more rigorous than that, but the writing is more or less a simple description of the plots and a little discussion of whether the biases in the model are serious problems or not. I had put a little thought into this already and had a list of a few references I needed to include, so in a sense I had planned a little bit.

To write a detailed plan and concept map like I did for, say, the ethical and social subsection, would have been like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The ethical and social section was a foray into an area outside my expertise and was something which required a structured argument. The section on model assessment was comparatively simple to write. I noted this in advance and changed my plan accordingly. The section might need some proof-reading as a result, but in general the ‘Models & Methods’ section of any thesis is ‘menial’ work which doesn’t require too much difficult thought.