Hello, Katharine. Thank you for your time with The Well. I’d love to have our readers get to know you as a Christian and a climate scientist, passionate about your faith and our world. Can you tell us how you first became interested in studying the science of climate?
The interest in science probably starts with my great-grandmother, one of the first women to graduate from McGill University in the early 1920s. My grandmother also graduated from McGill with a degree in science education in the late 30s. She had eight children, all of whom went on to university and most of whom ended up as educators or academics — or both, such as my father!
I grew up in an environment where learning was taken for granted. That was just what you did. There was never any question of whether any of us would go to university. The only question was whether you were going to graduate school or not. [Laughing]
Photo: Doug Hayhoe
The other thing taken for granted when I grew up was that science was so cool — that it was amazing and fun and incredible to be able to figure out what God was thinking when he designed a leaf, or when he painted a butterfly, or when the star exploded to make a nebula and formed all its colors and patterns.
My dad loved astronomy, so we never took a family vacation without a telescope. Telescopes in those days were the size of half a dining room table. We had a big old station wagon and when we traveled — especially when Halley's comet came through one year — the telescope went with us. [Laughing] So, three kids, two parents, and a large telescope traveled everywhere together.
At the same time, we grew up Brethren and my dad was one of the main teachers in our local assembly. So I very much learned about science from the framework of faith: God designed the world, and we're trying to figure out what God was thinking when he set the whole thing up in the first place. I grew up with what I now realize is the unusual perspective that whenever there appears to be a conflict between science and faith, it’s because we don’t fully understand one or the other, or probably both. And with a little bit of patience and some humility, maybe we can end up figuring it out, or maybe it's something that we won't know until we get to heaven. But how could they be inconsistent with each other, if they were both created by the same person?
This perspective was modeled for me by my father. Whenever some new science came along and some Christians, especially down here in the States, might be raising their eyebrows, his perspective was, "That's very interesting. Let's think about it." In Canada, there aren’t many Christians who are suspicious of science from the get-go. They're more science-neutral. It's just not something they really talk about. But my dad would do these presentations where he had enormous carousel sets of slides on astronomy — all the galaxies and nebulae and planets — on the wonders of God revealed in the skies. And people just loved it. You could just see peoples' response, that it was a response of awe and of worship.
I grew up in this atmosphere of appreciation for science. And I was also, subtly,[laughing] indoctrinated into the idea that science was what people did.
So did you do a science degree when you went to university?
My undergraduate degree is in astrophysics. And I loved it. It was really fun. But when I was looking around to fill my breadth requirements, I found this course on climatology and thought, Well, you know, that looks interesting. And it looks easy. Let's just take it. But when I took it, I was surprised to learn that, for example, the mechanics that we've used to calculate orbits are what people use to calculate the onset of the Ice Ages. I realized that not just my physics but even my astrophysics was what climate scientist use, and that climate modeling's all physics.
I also didn't realized how urgent it was. I had mentally categorized climate change with all these other environmental issues, which are all very sad: biodiversity loss, deforestation, air pollution, water contamination, spread of diseases, and people dying of things, like childbirth or an infected toe, that we shouldn't be dying from in this day and age. And so I just lumped it with those things, and didn't realize that it was happening so fast, that it was accelerating, that we were doing nothing to stop it, and that it was exacerbating all these other issues to the point where you can't fix these other issues if you leave climate change out of the picture.
So you changed your major?
Yes! How could I not, when I realized how urgent this problem was, and that (serendipitously) I had the exact skill set needed to work on it?
I think the best description of climate change that I've heard comes from the US Military. They call climate change a threat multiplier. And that phrase is exactly what it is. In and of itself, a warming of the planet of one and a half degrees, is no big deal. We care about this warming because it multiplies all the threats that we already face today. Climate change scales them up and up and up. For example, the Department of Defense cares about climate change because it multiplies the threat of political instability. Research has tied escalation in civil and international conflict to factors that include changing climate and weather patterns and risks associated with heat waves, droughts, floods, water and food availability. Climate change also impacts people personally, perhaps no more personally than via its risk on our lives. The European heat wave, for example, caused seventy thousand deaths in just three weeks. Air pollution from burning coal and oil is responsible for 8 million deaths per year. All that could be avoided if we could wean ourselves off these old, outdated ways of getting energy from fossil fuels.
Photo: Chris Soldt
We did a project with the city of Chicago, where the city asked every department to come in and talk to us and try to figure out if there was any way that they might be impacted by climate change. So the Department of Emergency Response comes in. You know, the guys who do fire, ambulance, police. And you can tell they're kind of like, "Well, why are we here? This is so silly. How are we going to be affected?" And I didn't know either, at the time. I said, "Well, I don't know why you're here either, but let's just talk." So we started to talk about what we can do, and how we can develop projections for how many days per year we'll have certain high temperatures, or how often we'll have heat waves. All of a sudden, these guys were excited, and they're like, "Really? You can calculate...? We staff by the thermometer."
So they were already saying that? That they staff by temperature?
They were already doing it. That is literally what they said. "We staff by the thermometer in the summer." It's related to health issues — people living in poor neighborhoods won’t open their windows at night because they are worried about safety issues and they often can’t afford to pay for air conditioning. But it's also a lot of people getting irritable and short-tempered in hot temperatures. That totally blew my mind, that they were already doing that, and they didn't even realize that climate change was increasing that risk. We ran the projections for them, and they said, "Wow. You know, if we don't change things, we're going to have to double our staff." But knowing so far ahead gives you a tremendous advantage, because you can say, "Okay. What can we do proactively to lessen the risk of violence and health risks in south Chicago?" Like, investing in green spaces and cooling shelters, investing in helping people live in a more secure environment, making sure that people have access to the air conditioning they need.
A CTA train junction in the Chicago Loop. Photo: Daniel Schwen
We also worked with the CTA because some of their metro rails expand and warp when it gets hot, and they have to run cooling trains, or they have to shut down the metro. Based on our projections, they have a plan of when they're going to be replacing their rails proactively so that they won't have to have permanent cooling trains running or permanent shutdowns in the summer.
Another big issue in Chicago is flooding. We did flood projections for them and [laughing] they subsequently got sued by Farmers Insurance who said that the city of Chicago had not adequately prepared for the increased risk of flooding, and Farmers Insurance was bearing the cost of it. Which is very ironic, because the city couldn't say they didn't know, because they did know, because we'd done the study for them.
Fortunately, Farmers Insurance withdrew the suit and they said they were just trying to make the point that they wanted Chicago to be more proactive in preparing for flooding: which they are, with new reservoirs and storm drain systems that went online in 2015.
And this is for Chicago! Not Atlanta or Houston. A city in the north. Is New York? Are other cities doing this?
Yes. New York is definitely preparing. I'm not working with New York myself. Right now I'm working with DC. I worked with Chicago. I work with Austin and San Antonio and Boulder. But New York is one of the pioneers in this area, because of their risk from sea level rise and coastal storms.
What many people don’t realize is that it’s normal to get a hurricane track all the way up the coast to New York in October, about once every five years. That's just part of normal life. Why was Sandy so bad? For several different reasons. First, sea level is quite a bit higher now than it used to be. Globally, it's eight inches higher. But on the East Coast, on the Atlantic Coast, it's even higher because of the circulation changes that are happening. So they're one of the places that they're seeing above average sea level rise. Also, Sandy passed over ocean water that was significantly warmer than it would have been 50 or 100 years ago. So Sandy got a lot stronger than it should have been because the ocean was a lot warmer. Then third, most hurricanes veer east off the coast and off into the Atlantic, but Sandy took this dramatic left-hand turn right into New York. We can't tell for sure why, but it might be related to the fact there was a massive high-pressure system over Greenland that was blocking it. Why was there a high-pressure system over Greenland? Because of their record warm temperatures that year. Warm conditions lead to these high pressure systems. So yes, they are very worried about climate change.
So is that the majority of your work, working with city planners and things like that?
Working with planners of some type is about a third of my work. Another third of my work is developing the high-resolution climate projections that we need to do this work. I'm one of a very few number of people in all of North America who do that. Then the other third of what I do is communication and outreach. This includes traveling and speaking, but I also spend a lot of time writing in various forms. And I spend a lot of time, doing interviews. A ton. [Laughing] Because I think it's important to get the word out. I don't blog because I don't want to try to build my own audience. I want to try to reach all the audiences that already exist. So I want to try to plug into whatever, whether it's anything from The Well to Good Housekeeping magazine where I helped them curate a special issue on climate change in 2015. They had five articles on climate change in the issue, and one of them even got picked up by the White House, and the president put in on his Facebook page.
Photo: Chris Soldt
The second third you mentioned: studying high-resolution climate projections — what does that mean?
Well, when you run global climate models, they might give you information for the lower half of Wisconsin. And while it may be precise to the lower half of Wisconsin, it's only really accurate to the upper Midwest. But there's a huge difference between what happens in Minneapolis versus what happens in Madison versus what happens in Chicago.
In my research, we take all of the long-term weather data, all of our weather stations, even the satellite observations, and we combine those with global climate model output to scale it down to the local scale. You could just say, "Heavy rainfall events are increasing across the Midwest." But you want to know, are they increasing by 40% or 80% or 200%? The answer's going to be different depending on whether you live in Duluth or Minneapolis. So that's what I do, because to make those type of planning decisions I'm talking about, for everything from crop modeling to city planning, you need local-scale information. And that's the very technical part of the research.
So you're sitting in front of a computer, getting data and crunching it?
Yes! Our group is the number one user of our high performance-computing center. We do a lot of climate data and analysis. I'm part of the World Meteorological Organization that has a committee of people around the world who do these high-resolution climate projections. And I'm one of the two North American representatives. So that's the second type of thing I do.
Are there grad students coming up who are training to do this as well?
Well, there are people who are interested, but the problem is, we lack the training programs for them, because it's a skill in a field that is very specific and at my university I don't have a program I can train them in. So I primarily take post docs.
So where did you get the training?
After my Masters, which was in atmospheric chemistry modeling, I took some time off to do consulting to learn more about how people were using the information we climate scientists were giving them. Several of my projects involved regional climate assessments, and those were where I realized that this high-resolution climate information people needed just wasn't there. It was very rudimentary. It was very basic. So I went back to the University of Illinois to do my PhD thesis on this topic, where my research ended up being primarily self-guided. When I got to my defense, it was really funny because I walked in and my committee was very much sitting there with the air of, "This is going to be so fun, to learn about something new." They had the coffee, they had the snacks, their body language was relaxed — sitting back, ready for a show, more or less saying, "All right! Let's learn about this thing! This is going to be pure entertainment!" (Because for academics, learning is entertainment!) Nobody else really knew what it was, what I was doing. But they were interested in finding out and they certainly knew what questions to ask and had the hard atmospheric science background required to understand and evaluate my work.
Photo: Martin Voelker
Katharine, as a woman in the sciences, can you see times where being a woman has hurt you? Helped you?
Both. [Laughing] First of all, women are definitely a minority in the physical sciences, which I’m part of. In life sciences there are more women, but in physical science, women are still very much in the minority.
As an undergrad at the University of Toronto, I felt very encouraged and supported as a woman. My science professors were all male, every single one of them. But they would go out of their way to say, "We need more women in astronomy. You're doing a good job. Let me know if you need help."
The further I got into my career, though, the more I started to run into gender issues. At Texas Tech, the first department that I came into only had two other female faculty among about forty-five professors. Gender was definitely one of the issues involved in me leaving that department (although there were other reasons as well). At the time, I was invited to consider moving to another department.
During the interview process, you meet with all the different professors in the department. I walked into one professor's office, and he had all of Richard Dawkins' books piled up facing me in a huge pile, and he just proceeded to grill me on what it meant to be a Christian, and how I felt about being part of such an ignorant religion. And then I walked into another professor's office, but he didn't really want to talk with me. He just wanted to tell me that what I did was just a technician's job, that I wasn't a scientist, and that there wasn't any room for non-scientists in the department.
After completing this emotionally challenging interview process, that new department ended up offering me a position lower than my current rank. I'm quite a humble person [laughing], normally I don't think that highly of myself, but my husband encouraged me to look through the CVs of every other professor in the department that was extending me this offer. I looked at how many publications they had, and I looked at how much grant money they brought in. I found my numbers were higher than every assistant professor in the department, higher than all but one associate professor, and on par with several of their full professors, and they were offering me an entry-level position. I took those statistics with me to a meeting with that department’s chair, and I said, "I can't accept an entry-level position because that's not what I am. Here're the statistics from your own department." As he looked at me, I could see he was visibly struggling to express himself politely. Finally, he gripped the table and leaned forward and blurted out, "Katharine! Why are you so...adamant?!"
Not like, "Oh, you have set up a good case"?
No, like, "Why are you so stubborn that you will refuse to accept this magnificent boon that we are extending to you?" And I said, "I would rather leave," because I am one hundred per cent convinced that would never have happened if I were a man.
This is a hostile department. You did not end up there!
No, I didn't want to be there anyway. That's just one example. Another example is when I was asked to give a commencement speech after the IPCC [Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change] won the Nobel Prize. I was the only climate scientist at the university at the time, and I worked really hard on it because I figured, well, what do you say to such a diverse group? So I talked about how with global issues like climate change, we all can contribute. If you're from the humanities, if you're from the arts, if you're from languages, if you're from natural science, if you're from engineering, there all these different things that we can do with our lives to make our efforts matter and to contribute to the world. Afterwards, we're all standing around on the platform in our formal academic robes — the President, Provost, Deans, the Board of Regents — and the Chancellor walks up to me, and he sticks out his hand and he pats me on the head, and he says, "You are a pretty little girl, but you have no idea what you're talking about."
Wow. Then you kneed him in the...
[Laughing] I wanted to keep my job, so no, no I didn't.
Is that where you are now?
He left. I'm still there.
Good for you.
Although there are definitely issues of gender discrimination, it’s also important to say that for every person that I've negative experience with, I've also had a positive experience. My current department chair is a man who is so supportive and encouraging of women. He's the reason why I'm there.
Photo: Hayley Hemstreet
There are also fantastic support networks out there for women. My colleague here in Madison, Tracey Holloway, is one of the founding members of the Earth Science Women's Network. I’ve learned so much from this amazing group of women, everything from dealing with impostor syndrome to the whole work-life-balance thing, which is always a challenge as my husband Andrew Farley is a very busy academic, pastor, radio host, author, and public speaker as well.
And he travels as well?
Yes, my husband travels just as much as I do. We often plan his travel while our son Gavin is with me so that we're all away at the same time, and then we come back, and we're all together. We make spending time together a priority so although we are often apart, we make up for it when we are back! That's why I've tried really hard to figure out ways to integrate my personal life into my professional life, because the one thing I don't want to regret is spending time with Gavin. As a result, I often end up taking him with me on my travels which has been such a positive experience as well (although not without its challenges).
Did you take him as an infant? In a front pack, or a backpack into meetings and things like that?
Gavin has certainly done his share of sitting under conference tables playing with blocks, or at the side of an auditorium on his iPad while I give a talk, and my favourite travel item for years was a lightweight travel stroller that I could flip open with the snap of a wrist! My mother and sisters often took turns coming with me when he was a baby so I could take him with me during the first two years. Once he was older, the advantage of going to graduate school and being in academia is that you have friends who are scattered around the continent and even the world. And so now, whenever somebody invites me to speak somewhere, often I know somebody who lives nearby. And so I email them and say, "Hey, do you have a babysitter you love? Would you be able to put me in touch with them?" And so I often find somebody to help out that way.
We had a Dear Mentor question at The Well a few months ago about this. It’s great to hear something of how you have done this. This could be a whole separate article for The Well!
Let's talk about it more in detail, because I have all kinds of stories I can tell.
I would love that!
Even when I've initially had negative responses when I said I have to bring Gavin with me, they've always turned positive, and there have been many different ways it's worked out.
We’ll look forward to hearing more and featuring it in the future.
Our early environment is so important, and that’s why I love having the flexibility to spend so much time with my child, to take him with me hiking in the rainforests of Puerto Rico, tracking polar bears across the Canadian tundra, exploring France during COP21. The cues we communicate are essential to giving our children an appreciation of this amazing world we live in. By showing by example that the science I do is important and fun, I hope I am providing him with the foundation he needs for his future (even if it isn’t in science). I remember one day when Gavin came home from preschool, at the stage when they are figuring out life and putting people and things into categories, and said “You know, girls don't really like science.” I said, “Okay, let's just think about that for a second. What does your mother do? What does your friend Tomas's mother do? What does your friend Sage's mother do?” Because so many of my friends are great women and great scientists. That was the last time we heard that. [Laughing] Yes.
Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time, Katharine! We’ll look forward to talking with you again.