GeoLog

Awards and Medals

GeoTalk: Research reflections and lessons learned from Pinhas Alpert

GeoTalk: Research reflections and lessons learned from Pinhas Alpert

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Pinhas Alpert, professor in geophysics and planetary sciences at Tel Aviv University and recipient of the 2018 Vilhelm Bjerknes Medal. Alpert was awarded for his outstanding contributions to atmospheric dynamics and aerosol science. Here we talk to him about his career, research, and life lessons he has learned as a scientist.  

Thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path?

I was born in Jerusalem, Israel on 28 Sept 1949. I received my BSc (Physics, Math & Computers) and MSc (Physics) as well as my Phd (Meteorology) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1980; supervised by late Prof. Yehuda Neumann, Head of the Department of Meteorology).

Then I did my post-doc studies at Harvard University (US) with Professor Richard Lindzen (1980-1982) and got a position at Tel Aviv University in 1982.

I served as the Head of the Porter School of Environmental Studies, Tel-Aviv University, Israel, from 2008 to 2013, following three years as Head of the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences also at Tel Aviv University.

My research focuses on atmospheric dynamics, climate, numerical methods, limited area modeling, aerosol dynamics and climate change. As part of my PhD, I built an atmospheric model, which is used in Belgium (LLN) and Finland (UH) for research.

I’ve published three books, and I am the co-author of more than 347 articles (240 peer-reviewed; 107 in books).

Some more recent work includes developing with my colleagues a novel way for monitoring rainfall using cellular network data. From this method we were able to create a new kind of advanced flood warning system.

I also developed a novel Factor Separation Method in numerical simulations. This methodology allows researchers to calculate atmospheric synergies, and has been adapted by many groups worldwide.

I established and head the Israel Space Agency Middle East Interactive Data Archive (ISA-MEIDA). Currently it is called the Israeli Atmospheric and Climatic Data Center (IACDC), which provides easy access to geophysical data from Israel and across the globe. I served as co-director of the GLOWA-Jordan River BMBF/MOS project to study the water vulnerability in the E. Mediterranean and also served as the Israel representative to the IPCC Third Assessment Report Working Group 1.

In addition to my research projects and positions I have supervised 42 Master students and 23 Doctoral students; some of them have become professors themselves in universities in Israel and abroad.

My current group consists of nine students as well as four post-docs and researchers.

I married my wife Rachel (RN) in 1971 and we have eight children and sweet grandchildren (not to count).

This year you received the 2018 Vilhelm Bjerknes Medal for your outstanding contributions to atmospheric dynamics and aerosol science, most notably your involvement with the Factor Separation Method and novel monitoring systems.

For those readers who may not be so familiar with your work, could you give us a quick summary of your research contributions and why it’s important?

“Remember to do the research that you love the most.” (Credit: Pinhas Alpert)

The Factor Separation Method, first introduced in 1993, allowed scientists to compute the separation of synergies (or interactions or non-linear processes) among several factors for the first time in a quantitative approach.

This allowed researchers to compare for the first time different factors which contribute to some important processes like: heavy rainfall, floods, cyclone deepening, and model errors. The methods have now been applied in many areas of research, including environmental studies, paleoclimatology, limnology, regional climate change, rainfall analysis, cloud modelling, pollution, crop growth, and forecasting.

As to our novel method for monitoring atmospheric moisture: science today does not really know well enough how rainfall or moisture are distributed in the atmosphere.

This is true for all the world but it is particularly so over semi-arid or mountainous regions. For instance over Israel, a semi-arid region, we have about 100 rain gauges, while data from three cellular companies provide us with about 7000 cellular links from which we can calculate distribution of rain in real-time. Many severe flood events particularly over the semi-arid area of S. Israel have not been monitored at all by the classical approached including rain gauges and radar.

My colleagues and I developed a way to monitor such atmospheric conditions that taps into cellular communication networks (the network that lets us use our mobile phones for example). These networks are highly sensitive to the effects of weather phenomena and are widely spread across the world. By using data recorded by cellular communication providers, we found that these networks can provide important information on dangerous weather conditions.

For example, in one study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society we demonstrated that the technique could be used to monitor dense fog events. This is very important since there are no alternative methods to monitor fog on roads and highways, and furthermore they contribute to hazardous weather in which often hundreds of cars may be involved.

At the 2018 General Assembly, you gave a medal lecture on your personal perspective on the evolution of atmospheric research over time. What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned as a researcher?

My take-away messages were:

It seems impossible to predict which research will become a scientific breakthrough because,

  1. the message from your research came too early. For example, the Italian scientist Amedeo Avogadro first proposed the existence of a constant number of molecules in each kilomole of gas and calculated this number (6.022×1023). However, he was ridiculed for it, and only after he passed away was it accepted by the scientific community. Now every student must learn the Avogadro number in any basic thermodynamics course.
  2. the message was not clear or strong enough: When we are sure about our finding we must be strong in our statements and not too modest. Otherwise, the scientific community assumes that what we claim in our article is only a conjencture.
  3. the message was not given the right exposure. For example, in 1778-9 the French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace was the first to develop the mathematical terms the Coriolis Force, an important term in physics that explains air acceleration due to Earth’s rotation. However, it was until 60 years later that the French mathematician Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis gave these terms their physical meaning, i.e. that air-parcels in the Northern Hemisphere for instance turn to the right due to the Earth rotation. And, this was the main reason why these terms were called after Coriolis and not after Laplace.

 

Pinhas Alpert receiving the Vilhelm Bjerknes Medal at the EGU Awards Ceremony during the 2018 General Assembly. (Credit: EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

I also discussed whether researchers should invest their time in a concentrated topic, or spread their interests. A common question in atmospheric research, which is particularly bothering early career researchers, is which of these primary three directions should they choose to follow: 1. theoretical approach; 2. analysis of observations and 3. Employ atmospheric models.

One option is to spread your efforts in two or three of these directions. while the more easy approach is often to focus on only one of these three routes. My take-away message during my talk was that, while it certainly more difficult to spread your research to 2-3 of these pathways, it is a very personal decision. There is no right answer that applies to everyone, and your choice depends very much on your personal preference. Remember to do the research that you love the most.

And the other most important take-away message for success is hard work. As Thomas Edison once said in an interview in 1929, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

Recently, the IPCC released a special report on the consequences of global warming and the benefits of limiting warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. You had mentioned that you served as the Israel representative to the IPCC Third Assessment Report Working Group I. What would you say were some key lessons learned from contributing to an IPCC report? Do you think it is important for researchers to be involved in the policy process?

One of the most amazing things I have learned from my participation there was how much politics and debate are involved there. There are a lot of negotiations between the representatives of the various countries, who sometimes spend hours on the wording of sentences.

Yes, it is very important for researchers to bring the messages from their work to decision makers. However, this should only be done when you are convinced that your results are important for the society. Hence, it is my opinion that early career scientists should focus more on promoting their science and be less involved in the policymaking process. Without a strong scientific backing, it may interfere with your research. Again, here as well, the decision should be strongly based on your personal feelings.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

EGU announces 2019 awards and medals

EGU announces 2019 awards and medals

From 14th to the 20th October a number of countries across the globe celebrate Earth Science Week, so it is a fitting time to celebrate the exceptional work of Earth, planetary and space scientist around the world.

This week, the EGU announced the 45 recipients of next year’s Union Medals and Awards, Division Medals, and Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Awards. The aim of the awards is to recognise the efforts of the awardees in furthering our understanding of the Earth, planetary and space sciences. The prizes will be handed out during the EGU 2019 General Assembly in Vienna on 7-12 April. Head over to the EGU website for the full list of awardees.

Sixteen out of the total 45 awards went to early career scientists who are recognised for the excellence of their work at the beginning of their academic career. Twelve of the awards were given at division level but four early career scientists were recognised at Union level, highlighting the quality of the research being carried out by the early stage researcher community within the EGU.

Sixteen out of the 45 awards conferred this year recognised the work of female scientists. Of those, six were given to researchers in the early stages of their academic career.

As a student (be it at undergraduate, masters, or PhD level), at the EGU 2018 General Assembly, you might have entered the Outstanding Student Poster and PICO (OSPP) Awards. A total of 64 poster contributions by early career researchers were bestowed with a OSPP award this year recognising the valuable and important work carried out by budding geoscientists. Judges took into account not only the quality of the research presented in the posters, but also how the findings were communicated both on paper and by the presenters. Follow this link for a full list of awardees.

Further information regarding how to nominate a candidate for a medal and details on the selection of candidates can be found on the EGU webpages. For details of how to enter the OSPP Award see the procedure for application, all of which takes place during the General Assembly, so it really couldn’t be easier to put yourself forward!

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 7  to 12 April. The call-for-abstracts will open in mid-October. Submit yours via the General Assembly website.

GeoTalk: A new view on how ocean currents move

GeoTalk: A new view on how ocean currents move

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Jan Zika, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. This year he was recognized for his contributions to ocean dynamics research as the winner of the 2018 Ocean Sciences Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

My pleasure. I was actually pretty set on the geosciences as a kid. I think all my projects in my last year of primary school were about natural disasters of some form or another – volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. My teachers must have thought I was going to grow up to be a villain in a James Bond film.

I grew up in Tasmania, where there aren’t exactly natural disasters, but nature was very present in my everyday life and that sustained my interest into adulthood. When I was ready for university, meteorologists, geologists, and other researchers advised me to do the hard stuff first. So in my undergraduate degree I focused on mathematics and physics. I was good at it, but I kind of forgot why I was there at some point.

Things changed for me when I interned at a marine science laboratory in Hobart operated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). I’d walked past the building so many times growing up but never thought I’d get to work inside. Bizarrely, I worked on a project related to the Mediterranean Sea. It was just so uplifting being able to put all these skills I had learnt in class, like vector calculus and thermodynamics, into practice.

From then on I was properly hooked on oceanography and the geosciences. I got into a PhD program through the CSIRO, which felt like being drafted to the Premier League. After completing the doctorate, I took a job as a research fellow in Grenoble, France. Not an obvious place to study the ocean I know, but there was a great little team there. After a couple of years, I moved to the UK, first to the University of Southampton then Imperial College London.

After seven years as a research fellow in Europe I returned home to Australia to become, of all things, a mathematics lecturer at the University of New South Wales. My research is still related to oceans and climate, but day-to-day I am teaching maths. At least now when I teach vector calculus I can pepper the lectures with the sorts of applications to the natural world that have inspired me throughout my whole career.

This year you were awarded an Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award in the Ocean Sciences Division at the 2018 General Assembly for you work on understanding the ocean’s thermohaline circulation and its role in Earth’s climate. Could you tell us more about your research in this field and its importance?

I’d love to. In many fields of science just changing the way you look at a problem can have a big effect. Usually this involves drawing different kind of diagrams. These diagrams may seem abstract at first, but eventually they make things easier to understand. Some diagrams we are all familiar with in one way or another, such as the periodic table, Bohr’s model of the atom, and the economists’ cost-benefit curve. These were all, at some stage, new and innovative ways of presenting something fundamentally complex. I am not saying I did anything like make a model for the atom, but I was inspired by the work of 19th century physicists who made simple diagrams to describe thermodynamic systems (like engines and refrigerators, for example). I wanted to apply these types of ideas to the ocean.

Working closely with colleagues in Australia and Sweden, I came up with a way to make a new diagram for the ocean’s thermohaline circulation. This is the circulation that, in part, makes Europe relatively warm, and plays a big role in regulating Earth’s climate. The new diagram we developed helped us to understand the physical processes controlling the thermohaline circulation and opened the door to all sorts of new methods for understanding the ocean’s role in climate.

Jan’s diagram of ocean circulation in temperature-salinity coordinates from a global climate model (Community Earth System Model Version 1). Contours represent volumetric streamfunction in units of Sverdrups (1Sv = 10^6 m^3 s^-1). Credit: Jan Zika

I started to realize I had stumbled onto something really big when I ran the idea by a Canadian colleague Fred Laliberte, who was a researcher at the University of Toronto at the time. He had been working on a very similar problem in the atmosphere, and my diagram was just the thing he needed to work things out. We ended up getting that work published in the journal Science and we were able to say a thing or two about how windy the world might get as the climate changes. To know my ideas were having an impact well beyond my immediate research area really was special.

And what did you find out? How will climate change affect the world’s wind?  

What we found was that overall the earth’s atmosphere won’t get much more energetic (or may even get less energetic) as the climate warms. This means that although extreme storm events may become more frequent in the future, weak storms may become much less frequent (more calm weather). One can draw an analogy with a spluttering engine: it produces bursts of energy when it splutters but is slower and less effective the rest of the time.

Your research pursuits have taken you to some pretty incredible places. What have been some highlights from your time out in the field?

It has been great to balance the mathematics and theory I do with research in the field. As an oceanographer I have been ‘to sea’ a few times. The most memorable was when I was part of a research project to measure in the Southern Ocean. Our research area was between South America and the Antarctic continent. We set off from the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and made our way around the Scotia Sea dropping by South Georgia on our way back. Those Antarctic islands had the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. The highlight though was when a gigantic humpback whale spent a few hours playing with us and the ship – spinning under water, breaching and popping up to say hello.

Jan (right) with Brian King (left) from the UK National Oceanography Centre. Pictured here on the James Clarke Ross in the South Atlantic deploying an Argo Float. The instrument measures ocean temperature, salinity and pressure. Credit: Jan Zika

As part of the research, we released a small amount of inert substance (a type of chemical that wouldn’t affect marine life) about a kilometre below the surface of the ocean. This is called a ‘tracer.’ The idea was we would let the ocean currents move and stir the substance like milk poured into coffee. It is really important for us to understand how much things mix in the deep ocean as this affects the thermohaline circulation and how heat and carbon are absorbed into the ocean with global warming.

Once we had released the substance it wasn’t that easy to find where it had gone. What we had to do was float around, drop over an instrument that could trap water at different depths, then bring the water samples to the surface and analyse them in a small lab we had on board. The difficult part was the tracer would become really dilute once it had been mixed by ocean currents, and it was both a really time consuming and costly process to collect and analyse the substance. So we had to exploit sophisticated computer models and pool all our knowledge and best guesses on where the tracer might have gone. We did such a good job tracking it that we were able to continue gathering oodles of valuable data for almost twice as long as had originally been planned. This was testament to the excellent teamwork and ingenuity of our collaborators at sea, in the lab and in front of computers.

Outside of research, you have also been involved with a number of science communication initiatives and outreach activities with young students. What advice would you impart to scientists who would like to engage with public audiences?

That is right, I really enjoy inspiring the next generation and getting non-science folk engaged in what we do. I would say that you want to simplify things but don’t dumb them down. I’ve learnt the hard way that even when speaking to other ‘experts’ it is best to use plain language instead of jargon and go slowly through concepts even if you feel they should be basic. I think working with people from around the world (e.g. in France) who don’t have English as a first language, really helped me with this.

Jan teaching a Geophysical Fluid Dynamics class at the University of New South Wales with the aid of a rotating tank experiment. Credit: Susannah Waters

At the same time I am always surprised at how quickly young students can absorb ideas and throw up questions that even an expert wouldn’t have come up with. The great thing is that your students aren’t wedded to dogma like experienced researchers are, and so are capable of much more creative ideas.

The other day I was helping with a special event to encourage females to enter mathematics. I was inspired by a talk given by the Australian Girl’s Maths Olympiad Team who had just competed in Venice. They said solving Maths Olympiad problems was all about breaking down a big problem into smaller problems they already know how to solve. I ended up changing my own talk as I was inspired by this theme.

I guess what I am suggesting is, if you are organising outreach activities, instead of thinking about how to ‘tell them’ how things work, think about ways to get ideas from them. Include them in the process. Ask them the hard questions. That way everyone will be much more involved. And who knows, it might spark a great idea.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Treat that brilliant early career scientist to an EGU award nomination

Treat that brilliant early career scientist to an EGU award nomination

As a colleague or proud supervisor of postgraduate students and post-docs, there is a simple thing you can do to congratulate them on their excellence and research: nominate them for the one of the European Geosciences Union’s awards for outstanding early career scientists. The deadline is 15 June 2018, so now is the time to act.

Putting early career researchers in the spotlight

To credit researchers and to highlight their work, the European Geosciences Union has established a prestigious collection of medals and awards, which are awarded to exceptional scientists for their outstanding research contribution in the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

There are two types of awards which are dedicated to early career scientists: the Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award and the Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists. All divisions have a nomination procedure in place for the Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists award. Furthermore, from the nominees who have been put forward for the division awards, four are selected for the Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists which is a Union level award.

This year’s nominations must be submitted online before 15 June 2018, and are subsequently evaluated by the medal and award committees. It’s highly desirable that the EGU awardees and medallists reflect the broad diversity of the geosciences community. To accomplish this, EGU encourages considering gender, geographical and cultural balance when putting forward nominees.

Liran Goren receiving the 2018 Geomorphology Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award. (Credit: EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

How do I nominate this excellent ECS?

The online nomination procedure is straightforward and should take relatively little time. There are a few things that should be kept in mind in order to ensure your candidate is considered.

  1. Write a nomination letter (half page)
  2. Get a hold on an up-to-date and brief CV (one page)
  3. Add a (half page) list of the candidate’s most relevant publications (with some statistics on the total amount of scientific output)

 

Less is more

It’s important to note that the total nomination package should not exceed two pages, otherwise the nomination is not considered. Writing such nominations should therefore be guided by a quality over quantity approach, and nominations should be clear and concise, focusing on the research highlights of the candidate. 

Feeling proud

All in all, the EGU’s outstanding early career scientists awards are a great way to accolade researchers and to give them credit for their hard work. Nominating your postgraduate students and post-docs also highlights science in your field, increases the reputation of the research group, but above all, makes you feel proud.