About the blog series: Life of a Climate scientist
Life of a Climate Scientist is a new blog series started by the EGU Climate Division. The main focus of this series is to provide a platform for climate scientists to tell their stories of life in research. We will be covering a wide-range of subjects, from their scientific endeavors and maintaining work-life balance to challenges they have faced during their career path and the pandemic.
Venugopal (Venu) Reddy Thandlam (Ph.D. candidate)
EGU Climate division had an opportunity to interview Venugopal (Venu) Reddy Thandlam (he/him), originally from India, a first-generation academic, who is pursuing a Ph.D. degree in the Air, Water, and Landscape science program (LUVAL) in the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University in Sweden. He specializes in Atmospheric Rivers and extreme weather events. He also holds an affiliation at The Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), a research forum for transdisciplinary research open to researchers and Ph.D. students in Sweden. We managed to ask a wide range of questions from his scientific endeavors, his experiences during the pandemic in Sweden to his passion for pursuing climate science and teaching.
Q1: Hello Venu! Tell me about yourself and why you became a climate scientist.
“My name is Venugopal (Venu) Reddy Thandlam, originally from India, and I am a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University, specializing in extreme weather events. I did my bachelor’s in Computer Science and my master’s degree in Earth and Space Science from the integrated join program between Sri Venkateshwara University and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India. I was thinking of pursuing my Ph.D. degree in the field of Space Science, but I decided to pursue Earth Sciences, as I wanted to understand what controls the different physical processes on Earth. Despite Earth being a unique planet in the solar system (and possibly in the Universe), we spend billions of dollars sending probes to Mars to potentially get soil samples, a drop of water, or find a semblance of life; and yet, we have plenty of problems on Earth. As Earth is the only planet we can live on at the moment, I wanted to use my skills and my effort in constraining the interactions between the atmosphere and the Earth’s hydrosphere. Essentially, apply my skills in understanding weather and climate on Earth. Furthermore, I wanted to help improve the weather forecasting systems and climate predictions.
My curiosity for climate science started partly due to my family being involved in the farming business in India. Often in Europe, the results from the weather forecasts and predictions of climate are done using a top-down approach. Whereas, in developing countries, the weather forecasts and climate-related issues are underfunded. In India, many people are dependent on the rainfalls from the monsoon seasons for their agricultural business. Typically, the summer monsoon gives about ~90% of annual rainfall (June to September), while the winter monsoon gives about ~10% annual rainfall. People have been trying to predict monsoon rainfall for decades. Although, forecasting weather in India relies more on probabilistic not deterministic forecasting; in deterministic models, the output of the model is fully determined by the parameter values and the initial values, whereas probabilistic or stochastic models incorporate randomness in their approach. So, my impression when I was growing up as a kid, from my father and forefathers, is that many of the people in India are cultivating crops without any knowledge of the monsoon seasons. People typically use alternative resources, such as creating more wells which may last for about a month or two. Due to the lack of sufficient knowledge on weather and climate in India, particularly in the rural and remote areas and amongst the people in the farming sector, many farmers do not have the means to predict the timing of the rainfall nor have appropriate irrigation systems; this leads to inconsistency in their income. Furthermore, the region where I grew up is known to have frequent cyclones during different seasons of the year, causing extensive damage to life, infrastructures, and ecosystem. The untimely occurrence of these cyclones could also cause huge irregularities in the total yield of the seasonal crops during harvesting time. So, many people where I came from borrowed loans to help with their businesses: seasonal-site loans, co-sponsoring-site loans, etc. Thus, these extremes in monsoons and cyclones combined with floods, droughts, extreme cold, heat waves, etc., must be investigated in order to have better predictability in forecasting weather in changing climate for a sustainable future.
Having these perspectives, as a child, lead me to pursue my scientific career in climate science.”
Q2: Tell me about your exciting work? What are your recent achievements?
“I work with Professor Anna Rutgerson and Erik Sahlee in the Department of Earth Sciences in Upsala University, specialize in understanding atmospheric rivers, which is known to contribute to extreme weather events, i.e., precipitation, extreme winds, glaciers melting, and short term coastal sea-level changes, etc., around the world. Specifically, I am trying to investigate what is controlling these atmospheric rivers for the past four decades, in the Atlantic and Europe. Our work is important since there has been an increase in intensities and frequencies of these extreme events in recent times.
Atmospheric rivers are strong water vapor transport from the tropics to the subtropics and into polar regions. When these parcels of water vapor come close to land, there is a large chance of excess rainfall that can occur within a very short amount of time. This excess rainfall can sometimes cause flooding and strong winds, destroying many of the infrastructures as well as cause human casualties. I mainly use reanalysis datasets, old and new, numerical models, and machine learning techniques to understand the nature of atmospheric rivers. Furthermore, I investigate the connection between the changes in the intensity of atmospheric rivers and how it is tied to the changes in the upper oceanic parameters (ocean circulation), e.g., the Gulf Stream. For example, if you take the Gulf stream, which is very warm, it has been reported that in the last two decades, the sea surface temperature (SST) has been changing; there are also changes in the upper ocean parameters. When the ocean circulation slows down and the warm body of water moves towards the Pole, this will accelerate the melting of ice sheets, changing the global hydrological cycle. Thus, by understanding the physical processes of the ocean, we may be able to understand the changes in the behavior of extreme events, including atmospheric rivers. This is a global issue.
My greatest achievement is when I worked for the World Climate Research Program conducting research in predicting rainfalls in the monsoon seasons; I also managed to get some publications from my work, which I am very happy about. I got to travel to Russia and then to France for some time, before starting my Ph.D. degree in Sweden. As I mentioned before, monsoon seasons are mainly predicted using probabilistic forecasting. For example, we can say that 15% of the year there will be excess rainfall from the monsoon seasons, and 50% of the time the country may experience normal rainfall, etc. Most people are given this type of forecasting information, which is hard for policymakers and disaster management authorities to make decisions. For example, let us say we predict that this year there is a 70% chance of having a good monsoon. The rainfall is variable and depends on the atmospheric and oceanic conditions during that season. The policymakers need to decide what to do each year, for example food grains productions and storage, production of hydropower which currently provides 25% of India’s electricity. During years when the monsoon rainfalls are less than usual, the reservoirs are not replenished, limiting the amount of hydroelectric power produced during the year. Also, maintenance of dams, different irrigation projects on major rivers etc., depends on how dry or wet the monsoon season is predicted to be. During summer monsoons, heavy rainfall can cause flooding. Powerful floodwaters can damage infrastructures as well as increase casualties (drowning) and homelessness. Thus, an accurate monsoon forecasts are valuable for socioeconomic purposes. Instead of using probabilistic forecasting, we can use deterministic forecasting to better predict exactly the type of monsoon seasons we may have in different parts of the world. Usually, when scientists try to predict the monsoon seasons and their associated annual rainfall, they tend to have a more atmospheric perspective where they combine several numerical models to predict the atmospheric condition of the monsoons. We took an alternative approach where we collected data on both the atmosphere and the ocean and modeled the monsoon system to have better predictability. We also looked at the oceanic heat content in the Indian Ocean, which is known to affect the wind system and the rate of precipitation (this work was published in Nature Scientific Reports). Furthermore, we also worked on how the accelerated changes in sea level in the global oceans is affecting the tropical Indian Ocean and the monsoon. To do this research, we used altimetry data, data on sea-level change, from the satellites (since 1993) coupled with in-situ observations from Argo instrument. We discovered that the crosswind of the monsoons through the topical belt, or we call it cross-equatorial flow, is causing the tropical Indian Ocean to have biannual oscillation, which is changing the behavior of the monsoons. As this oscillation only happens on the Western and the Eastern part of the tropical Indian Ocean and keeping the central part unchanged, we call this phenomenon, a ‘monopole’; we published this work in Nature Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.”
Q3: How do you maintain a work-life balance?
“In parallel to my Ph.D., I also collaborate with other scientists/institutions, working on writing scientific papers. I am often split between several different projects, which makes it difficult to balance my work and my life. Most of the time I compromise. I try to leave my office by 6 pm and stay at home during the weekends. Although, the past year, due to COVID-19, sometimes I had to work from home, and I have had difficulties balancing my lifestyle.
There are combinations of things that helped me get through these difficult times, and to maintain a work-life balance. I tried to pick up some hobbies, watch documentaries about science, and closely follow the development in space science; as I did my masters in space science, it brought a lot of comfort and joy into my day-to-day life. I think it is important to study other planets in our solar system, as some processes are connected, especially issues related to global warming. For example, understanding the greenhouse effect on Venus might provide us with some insights into the fate of our planet in terms of anthropogenic climate change. I try to explore other scientific fields to keep up the morale and motivation. I also read some short stories (in my native language) and comics, watch animation as well as go for a walk when the weather permits me!”
Q4: How did the pandemic affect your life?
“COVID-19 hit Sweden around March and hit a lot slower than other countries; we went into total lockdown by May. We were recommended by the public health agency to work from home, as long as possible. So, I needed to establish a new routine.
In terms of my research, I had to postpone many of my plans. I was going to attend some conferences and training programs in the U.S, other countries in Europe, China, India, and Chile, but all of these plans were cancelled.
In Sweden, Ph.D. students have an option to teach classes; we usually operate at ~20% capacity. I have been teaching for the past three years on atmospheric dynamics and synoptic metrology targeted to master’s students. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s course had to be taught online, which increased my workload significantly. Normally, when I teach in a classroom, I write down many equations on the board; this is usually how I teach the class. As the course went online, I had to create new presentations and I had some difficulties conducting the course. It was very difficult explaining the equations online and it was quite time-consuming typing up all the course materials and equations as I had to learn how to use new software, etc., I never did this before. I learned a lot from remote teaching; it’s good exercise. One thing I do miss is teaching in a classroom, as it’s easier to interact with the students and get some sense of if they understood the material or not. When I was teaching last Autumn, many students turn off their camera, so I am not sure if they were paying attention to the material or not. In the end, I needed to prepare some additional materials so that the students can better understand some concepts in the course. I found that online teaching increased my workload significantly.
Personally, the hardest part of last year was to establish a new routine [as I mentioned before]: working from home, conducting meetings and courses online, taking online training courses, etc. Of course, it was nice being able to do it in the comfort of my home. Although, the work pace changed drastically, as everything slowed down. Usually, we show up at our office around 9 or 10 am and leave around 5 or 6 pm. When you work from home, work and life start to blend together. Sometimes I felt lazy in the morning and had no motivation to get my day started. So, I end up starting my day much later and end my work around 10 pm; this is not very good. Many of the tasks took a lot longer to accomplish during these challenging times. Usually, when you run into problems at work, you can immediately talk to your colleagues by knocking on their door and asking if they would like to go for a coffee or a lunch break. We also used to discuss contemporary issues and about up-to-date events in Sweden. Due to the pandemic, losing this type of interaction with my colleagues, especially since I am an international student, made me feel depressed and isolated. Especially, when I am used to a more active life, e.g., traveling abroad for science, interacting with other scientists, etc., you feel stuck in a small place, feeling lonely and depressed.”
Q5: What are some scientific concepts/issues did you and other climate scientists have had trouble explaining to the public?
“I think, most scientists experience this, where certain topics are much harder to explain to your students or to the public than others. Although, I find that the biggest barrier right now is explaining climate science to policymakers (and to a certain extent to the public). In my personal opinion, as a climate scientist, sometimes we fail to convince many policymakers about climate change. Many politicians are holding back on making any progressive decisions on climate issues to avoid any blame. I think this is giving the public a wrong impression about this issue. Furthermore, we are not communicating enough to the public/policymakers about uncertainties that come with the predictions related to climate change; this is part of science. Sometimes it is difficult to put an argument forward, due to uncertainties, and the opposition may draw some conclusions about certain climate issues. I think this is the hardest part of communicating climate science to the public. On the positive side, I think the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are helping policymakers to move forward in this issue, and climate policies are slowly being implemented in combatting climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides policymakers a resource to make critical decisions concerning Global Warming. Although, despite the significant leap forward in many political decisions made on this issue, I do not think many policymakers actually go through the document very thoroughly; they often only possess shallow knowledge about this issue. I think many policymakers do not care about climate change. Because, as I mentioned before, many policymakers do not understand the concept of uncertainty. When we, as climate scientists, present the trajectory of the future climate, i.e., may not be severe, business-as-usual or climate disaster, politicians can choose to not invest in mitigating climate change, as there are more pressing issues at hand, like the pandemic. As political parties change every four to five years in some countries, the politicians much rather invest in issues that might give them recognition in a short amount of time; this will help provide power in the next election cycle.
When it comes to climate change mitigation and sustainability, we do not see an immediate output after implementation. Usually, when the policy moves forward in this issue, it yields results 20 to 30 years later; it moves very slowly. When the policies are put into place, usually the target date is in 30 years. Let’s say Trump is in power; he does not care about climate nor sustainability issues. So, nothing will be done during his time as a President. In the end, who will follow through and care about these issues? We are lacking visionaries who care about long-term goals in politics.”
Q6: Do you think the reason why we’ve managed to get rapid vaccine rollouts (in some countries) is because the timescale of the pandemic is within the governance of one presidency unlike the issues related to climate change?
“Yes. That’s the difference between a visionary and a politician. We, as a society, used to have long-term goals. Some selfish politicians would look for short-term goals: food, security, health etc. They do not think about the future generations, because why would they take such a huge chunk of people’s money who voted for you to invest in future climate issues, especially, when you want to be re-elected. It is really difficult making policymakers understand climate change.
We have polarization in the opinion on climate change. Even though we signed the Paris agreement, U.S. withdrew the agreement during the Trump presidency, then re-joined during the Biden era. Some countries are doing so little to change the emission standards, while others are sticking to the agreement. Countries like India and Bangladesh are still developing as well as struggling with the pandemic. So, even though they have the time, they do not have resources nor technology to invest in such issues at the moment. Whereas, China has technology and finances, and could achieve their targets. As for what I have seen in Europe, many countries have the technology and finance to meet the target goal set by the Paris agreement. Although, I find that many European countries still need to support the economy, as they have to answer to the people who voted for them. So, the government needs to compromise on many of these issues, by prolonging the goal of achieving clean energy. In the end, we need to strike a balance between livelihood, economy, and the environment.
What I (we) want, as a climate scientist, is to make a policy which lasts for 50 to 100 years, where the policies will not change with change in government. All countries will pay upfront: we can call it “Climate Pot.” The policies will last for a very long time, providing results. So, issues related to climate change will not be affected, as it will be independent of the government. We can also scale the financial contribution based on the size of the country, around 5 to 10% of the tax per year for the next 100 years (like the carbon tax). We also should consider countries that are large emitters; another parameter to consider. These funds should also be invested in baseline climate research. Countries like Europe have been investing in climate research, while countries like India hardly invest money into climate/environmental research, even though it can affect the national economic growth via agricultural businesses. 70 to 80% of the farmers in India are dependent on the rainfall season. Just because COVID-19 is happening, does not mean natural processes stopped working. The changes in the monsoon seasons can still significantly affect the agriculture industries. Nature does not know who is in political power, but only responds to human activities/anthropogenic emissions. By increasing the exploitation of natural resources and breaking the balance in the carbon cycle, there will be a natural feedback potentially creating rapid environmental changes, which can be damaging to humans and to the ecosystems. So, we should take good care of the nature around us.”
Q7: What advice will you give to people who are interested in your line of work?
“If I sum it up in one word: Patience.
First of all, you should have an appreciation of the nature and of the Earth if you want to pursue climate science. You should love plants, animals, soil, water, and our planet and acknowledge that we have a beautiful planet. We only have one planet, Earth, and we cannot leave home and go to another planet at the moment. We do not have the technological capability to do this. Even if we find technology to live on another planet, we do not have the means of transport; transporting seven billion people to make a colony on Mars is not feasible. So, having a passion for our blue planet is important, in general, and for pursuing climate science.
For me, the path I took to pursuing climate science was not straightforward: from computer science, space science to climate science. Many students who finish their undergraduate degrees do not lean towards climate science or even know that this field exists. Many people pursue engineering, medicine, or other fields. Especially in India, there are better opportunities if you pursue those fields. My classmates from my bachelor’s and master’s degree earn more money and have established careers because they chose to be in a different field. So, being a scientist, especially a climate scientist, is not straightforward.
Becoming a researcher takes a lot of patience. Research takes a long time, sometimes three years or more to finish a project. Sometimes we need to prepare for the unexpected. It is hard to estimate the time it will take to obtain results. So, you have to keep on working on your research to put it over the finish line. Try to frame your hypothesis and work on those problems; most of the time you will end up with completely opposite results from your hypothesis. So, have patience, as it will help digest many of the hardship that comes with becoming a researcher.
Most of the time, pursuing a career in science is de-motivating, disappointing and depressing, which is very common. You might be one of the lucky ones where you might get a project that works and have family support along with financial stability; all of those factors help manage time to balance life and work. Otherwise, you have to work with the research topic you were given, support family as well as balance finances; this is the reality for most people. Be prepared to face all of these challenges.
As a young scientist, you are given a project to work on, but this is not always the case as you go further in your career. Working and building skills on getting your own funding is very important. As I mentioned before, climate science is a politically polarizing issue, and it is not always easy to get your projects funded as an early career scientist. So, you need to be confident with your work and have a good working hypothesis to get funded. We should be prepared for this as well.
There are always pros and cons in pursuing climate science and science in general; it’s not a cakewalk. So, possessing a strong will is very important. Always take time to settle into the field and find scientific field you are interested in; this can help you stay motivated. From what I have seen, at the Ph.D. level, there has been a 30 to 40% rate of dropout; it is not easy to pursue a Ph.D. degree in climate science. Furthermore, choosing a good mentor who can guide you or having strong collaborators is very important. Most of the time, it is our responsibility to establish collaborators. Building skillsets by investigating in state-of-the-art technology or technique is very important. 15 years ago, building a numerical climate model was cutting edge, but slowly people started to move towards using artificial intelligence, by implementing machine-learning/deep-learning as part of their research. So, keeping up with the latest technology/techniques is very important in climate science, and science in general.”