Certain of Scientific Uncertainty

Linda Mearns, Sr. Scientist, IMAGe at NCAR

Linda Mearns is an interdisciplinary climate scientist who works on climate scenario development, and characterizing and quantifying uncertainties.

What influenced you to pursue a career in science?

Two main factors drove me toward becoming a climate scientist.

I grew up on Long Island, and we would often experience hurricanes in the late summer and fall as they swept up the east coast. I was very much in awe of their power. Our electricity would sometimes go out because of them. They were both scary and very exciting.

Second, when I took an honor’s earth science class in 9th grade, we were introduced to weather maps. I found them to be esthetically very pleasing and I loved all the symbols on them. I would just pour over them for hours. Later in college I took a course in climate in the geography department and was thrilled to find out about the general circulation of the atmosphere. I couldn’t believe I had lived so long without knowing about subtropical high pressure systems.

Who are you at work and what does a typical workday look like?

At this point I describe myself as an interdisciplinary climate scientist. I connect studies of climate to other disciplines, such as agriculture and hydrology. Earlier in my career I worked mainly in the impacts of climate on agriculture. But I slowly migrated to more climate-focused topics such as regional climate scenario development, and characterizing and quantifying the uncertainties in future regional climate.

I head the Regional Integrated Science Collective (RISC) section in IMAGe. A typical day involves having scientific discussions with some of my group members regarding new scientific results, answering e-mails, attending seminars of interest to me, and working on research articles.

Who are you outside of work?

I enjoy reading, going to movies, hiking, snowshoeing, traveling to interesting places, playing with our cats, and playing the ukelele. I also enjoy doing nothing at all.

What has been your favorite work-related experience?

I can't name just one; I'll name two.

One has been my involvement as author of a number of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This activity has combined several of my interests: working with the international community, taking a broad but incisive perspective on what we know about climate change and its impacts, participating in a process that concerns both science and international governance. It is a fascinating, arduous endeavor.

The second is mentoring the next generation of climate researchers. One way I have done this over the past few years is by organizing colloquia for graduate students and post-docs on the topic of uncertainty in all aspects of climate change research. I also very much enjoy working with the young scientists in my section.

Stephen SchneiderThe Power of One: If you could thank only one person for academic or career support, who would it be?

That person would be Stephen H. Schneider, who was at NCAR for a number of years before he moved to Stanford. It was through Stephen that I ended up at NCAR. He was my co-PhD advisor and I was in his group (known unofficially as the Granola Bunch) during my first years at NCAR as a post-doc and scientist. Sadly, Stephen died in 2010. I will always miss him.

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

Well, if someone wants to be an interdisciplinary climate scientist, it takes a lot of fortitude. It is easier to be a purely disciplinary climate scientist. It is easier to describe what you do and thus easier to have a simple label that people remember. So you need to have a certain tolerance for the ambiguity you present to the world. Depending on what professional meeting I attend, colleagues who don’t know me well might view me as anything from an agronomist, social scientist, or regional climate modeler. However, interdisciplinarity is becoming more and more important in the climate science world, so I think evolving toward interdisciplinary is a good direction to take.

Linda Mearns, Sr. Scientist, IMAGe at NCAR