Dr. Laura McGowan PhD Atmospheric Science, UC Davis
We are fortunate to have a great atmospheric scientist on our ClimateCheck team! Dr. Laura McGowan uses her wide experience in studying and modeling atmospheric patterns to produce information on water and wind climate patterns. Her involvement as a teacher helps her think about new approaches to climate science and how to connect and excite general audiences with the science behind complex climate patterns.
Laura At ClimateCheck
What is your educational background? What interesting climate ideas did you explore?
- I have a B.A. and M.S. degree in Geography from the University of Delaware, an M.S. in Meteorology from Pennsylvania State University, and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of California, Davis. I have studied a variety of atmospheric questions on different topics and multiple scales, including examining the impacts of snow cover on Nor'easters, detecting anthropogenic CO2 fluxes across a city, and looking at the water and energy balance of snow in trees. They were all interesting! But for my last project, snow in trees, it was remarkable to see how changes to individual tree types on a small scale can greatly impact water availability for an entire state!
What weather hazards do you work on at ClimateCheck? How have you seen these have an impact?
- I'm currently working on the wind in the U.S. and Canada, drought in Canada, and seismic. In terms of wind, the hazard I am wrapping up now, I saw vehicle and property damage from high winds last year. Mostly from trees falling on homes or cars. The hazards that are most evident to you are really going to depend on your location. For example, California will need to focus on droughts and wildfires, which are entirely different from the flood risk facing Miami.
Teaching Climate Change
What have you learned from teaching climate science that you are applying to your work at ClimateCheck?
- I teach climate change and meteorology. I really enjoy teaching these overview courses to undergraduates. It keeps me engaged and grounded in the topic. It is fun finding ways to distill complex ideas to people and I appreciate that I cannot get too wrapped up in the terminology of my field. For example, if I just threw out the word evapotranspiration, I would get odd looks!
What are the biggest challenges bridging the gap between climate science and the consumers of climate data?
- Half the battle is trying to distill complicated ideas into bite-sized information. It is important to adjust what you're communicating based on how people interpret it. Our work is based on detailed science, and we must make it understandable. We take all these complex ideas and processes and condense that information into a single score.
Are you optimistic about our climate future?
- The one piece of optimism that I like to give my students is the example of air quality in the U.S. from manufacturing in some cities like Pittsburgh. Air pollution was so bad at times that not enough light from the sun reached the ground and streetlights remained on during the day. In addition, specific air pollution events lasted days and killed hundreds of people. A great example of this occurs in the first episode of the Crown. Which is something I learned from one of my students. As we learned about the impact of poor air quality, the U.S. implemented the Clean Air Act, which regulates six major pollutants. If you look at the plots of these major pollutants over time, you see a decrease in the regulated pollutants. It is an excellent example of what can be done when we take action.
What do you see as the most interesting climate change topic that isn't commonly discussed?
- Food waste. In the U.S., as consumers, we waste about a third of the food we purchase. This might not seem like a big deal until you think about what went into getting that food into your house. It was grown with fertilizers, harvested with machines, packaged usually in plastic, and then transported to the grocery store. We put all this energy and effort into this food and then toss it. It would help if we could be more realistic about what we're buying and wasting.