Climate and Life Fellows - Center for Climate and Life

The Center for Climate and Life Fellows Program mobilizes scientists to conduct the research necessary to understand how climate impacts the security of food, water, and shelter, and to explore sustainable energy solutions. This program accelerates the knowledge creation needed to illuminate the risks and opportunities for human sustainability.

The Center supports several Climate and Life Fellows each year to lead urgent research projects on topics central to our mission. Our goal is to focus our considerable talent and resources to accelerate the knowledge we need to understand how changes in climate and life systems impact the essentials of human sustainability. The Fellows program frees our scientists to think deeply and creatively about how they can contribute knowledge for the public good.

Fellows are selected competitively and receive funding at the level of one-third their annual salary for up to three years, with additional funding for research travel and fieldwork. Scientists eligible for this program include the research staff from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and NASA GISS campuses, including Lamont-Doherty, IRI, CIESIN, Agriculture and Food Security Center, and the Center for Climate Systems Research at NASA GISS.


Pierre Dutrieux, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Dutrieux, a Lamont Assistant Research Professor who studies interactions between the world’s oceans and polar ice sheets, will provide critical insight into the future stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and associated sea level rise. Melting of the marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet has the potential to contribute more than a meter to sea level rise by the end of the 20th century. The Amundsen Sea sector of this ice sheet may be in the early stages of an irreversible retreat; this sector of the ice sheet is grounded below sea level, making it highly susceptible to oceanic melting. But the rate of ice loss remains uncertain, leading to wide-ranging and often conflicting sea level rise forecasts. Dutrieux’s research will resolve some of this uncertainty using data obtained through new under-ice observations and methods to understand the ice sheet evolution and the near-term likelihood of unstable retreat. These findings will enable better predictions about how this melting will contribute to global sea level rise.

Kevin Uno, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Uno, a Lamont Assistant Research Professor, investigates the role climate change played in human population dynamics and migration. His research project will advance understanding of how abrupt climate shifts affected Neolithic human populations in northwest Africa. Historical changes in northern and Sub-Saharan African rainfall impact food security and water availability for more than 150 million people. Uno will look to the past to develop a better understanding of how populations have responded to large changes in regional rainfall. He’ll develop a detailed climate context for the archeological record of human occupation at Gobero, Niger—home of the oldest Saharan cemetery—a region where climate abruptly transitioned from wet to dry conditions nearly 5,000 years ago. Uno’s findings will reveal how climate transitions affected human settlement, diet, and abandonment, and can inform how different subsistence lifestyles influence population resilience to climate shifts.

Daniel Westervelt, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Westervelt, an Associate Research Professor whose work focuses on air pollution and climate, will develop a real-time air pollution-monitoring network for three growing megacities in sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is among the world’s most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change and air pollution, yet the environmental monitoring needed to develop solutions to these problems is lacking. Westervelt will deploy air pollution monitors to continuously measure pollutants such as fine particulate matter in three growing megacities: Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Kampala, Uganda; and Nairobi, Kenya. These represent the first measurements of air pollution in Kinshasa, and some of the first for Kampala and Nairobi. The resulting data will create detailed measurements of the anthropogenic agents that are responsible for air pollution-related climate impacts and enable local governments to take actions to protect human and environmental health and plan for a sustainable future.


Yutian Wu, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Wu will investigate how the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice will impact North American weather extremes. Climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet and causing sea ice to disappear at a rate of 13.2 percent each decade. This is worrisome for many reasons. Among them is growing scientific evidence that vanishing sea ice can increase the frequency of extreme weather events at lower latitudes by disrupting the jet stream, which controls and creates our weather. But further study is needed to determine to the link between extreme weather and sea ice loss, and how North American weather may be affected. Wu’s goal as a Fellow is to clear up some of this uncertainty using observational methods and running state-of-the-art atmospheric general circulation model experiments. Her research will contribute to an improved predictability of high-impact extreme weather events including heat waves, cold spells, droughts, floods, and wind gusts. The results will also be helpful to the planning and management of agriculture, transportation, and energy production practices.


Edward Cook, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Cook will develop a new drought atlas — a benchmark reconstruction of past hydroclimatic variability from tree rings — called the Northern Hemisphere Drought Atlas (NHDA). The applications of the NHDA are many and it will significantly advance understanding of the causes of hydroclimatic variability, how this variability has impacted humanity and the environment in the past, and how it may do so in the future. The NHDA will be useful to scientists across a broad range of research disciplines including climate modeling, global change, hydrology, ecology, and archeology. It will also provide critical and impactful results to governments for decision-making and policy, as well as to industry, finance, NGOs, and insurance providers, on matters relating to food, water, energy. In addition to providing space-time reconstructions of hydroclimatic variability covering most of the Common Era, the NHDA can be used to explicitly reconstruct streamflow for water resources applications. It will have the ability to track future changes in hydroclimate in near-real time through updates of instrumental data seamlessly ‘blended’ with the tree-ring reconstructions, thus keeping the NHDA a ‘living’ product for future use without the need to recalculate the tree-ring reconstructions themselves.

Andrew Robertson, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Robertson will create the world’s first multi-model global probabilistic forecasting system for routine sub-seasonal weather and climate fluctuations (about a week to a month ahead, issued every week), tailored to societal impacts (floods, droughts, heat and cold waves, wind speeds). This project will benefit society by providing early warning for early action in the intermediate time range between existing weather and seasonal climate forecasts; it will fill the gap between weather and climate where many sectorial decisions arise in adapting to changing climate impacts on life’s essential resources. The system will use publicly accessible forecasts from U.S. and Canadian operational forecasting centers, combined and calibrated with established regression methodologies. The forecasts of precipitation, temperature and wind speed, will bridge between daily weather and seasonal climate using a “seamless” use-informed forecast scaling paradigm that relaxes the space-time specificity at longer forecast lead time, harmonizing the user and physical considerations. The project will help answer important scientific questions on what can be predicted — where and when—at the boundary between weather and climate, and how highly technical probabilistic forecast information can be simplified and tailored to inform people’s needs in the real world.

Joerg Schaefer and Gisela Winckler, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Rising seas pose a major threat to societal welfare, and Polar Ice Sheet instability will be the driving force of sea level rise in the next decades. This is arguably the most critical problem of all geosciences: Rapid sea level rise will displace hundreds of millions of people living near-shore. The predicted rate of ice sheet and sea level change is central to designing mitigation and adaption strategies for the next century, but understanding of the rate of ice sheet melt remains limited. For this project, Schaefer and Winckler will produce (a) the first comprehensive direct record of the past dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS), (b) an update on sea level predictions and (c) a first analysis of its impact on societies. This project builds on their recent research, which indicates that Greenland was nearly de-glaciated for extended periods of time during the recent geologic past (~two million years), and in turn makes the case that the Greenland Ice Sheet is highly vulnerable. The goal of this new study is to evaluate the past variability of the Greenland Ice Sheet to improve future sea level predictions and explore the impacts of rising sea levels on life and society.


Laia Andreu-Hayles, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

LaiaAndreu-Hayles will investigate how global change impacts forests and climate in the tropical Andes during the past, present, and into the future. Andreu-Hayles will collect tree-ring samples in Bolivia and Peru and use a model to simulate forest productivity under distinct scenarios, such as increased temperatures or atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. These newly developed tree-ring records will fill the large gap of terrestrial paleo data in tropical South America and provide records of past temperature and precipitation variability. This project will lead to transformative changes in understanding tropical terrestrial ecosystems, with significant advances in the fields of global environmental change, paleoclimate, ecology, and applied water management policies.

William D’Andrea, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

dandreaD’Andrea seeks to bring new analytical tools to bear on the controversies and mysteries surrounding the decline of the early settlers of Easter Island, who rapidly overexploited the island’s resources through deforestation, causing their own demise. By collecting new sediment cores, with near-continuous sediment accumulation during the past 3700 years, and by applying novel analytical tools, D’Andrea seeks to determine when the first people settled Easter Island; what the timing and amplitude of hydroclimate variability was prior to and following settlement of the island; and how long after settlement the Easter Islanders began their practice of burning forests to create arable land for agricultural activity. The work will improve understanding of the interactions that took place between the people of Easter Island, their environment, and the climate of the eastern Pacific.

Chia-Ying Lee, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Chia-YingLee will addresses how wind field asymmetries and variability impact tropical cyclone risk and how asymmetries can be included in risk models. Lee will characterize wind field asymmetries using the best-available observational data as well as output from a high-resolution numerical model. This research has implications for coastal flooding: Wind drives storm surge, economic losses, recovery costs, and even planning for climate adaptation, because wind is a critical parameter for these estimates. The work will advance knowledge of the role played by wind asymmetries and a wind-asymmetry model that will benefit the larger scientific community.

Pratigya Polissar,  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

pollisarPolissar will map vegetation history using molecular fossils to examine how climate shapes Earth’s ecosystems. Polissar plans to compare recent vegetation histories with existing records of climate to illuminate the contributing factors to particular vegetation transitions. He will focus on the revolution in terrestrial ecosystems that occurred during the past 25 Ma, when ancient and long-lived forests in North America, Africa, Asia, and Australia were replaced by the iconic modern grasslands of these regions. The likely culprits for these defining events were a combination of changing temperature, atmospheric CO2 levels, and the distribution of rainfall—all parameters being altered today due to greenhouse warming. Findings from the geologic past can therefore help map out how ecosystems and human food supplies may be affected in the near future.


Michael PumaNASA GISS

michael-puma-nasa-giss280x194Michael Puma, an Associate Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, will use his Center for Climate and Life funding to apply advances in network analysis to better understand the global food system and mitigate potential food-system disruptions. To do so, he will be working closely with a broad range of stakeholders involved in the global food system, including farmers, industry, non-governmental organizations and governments to address how society can reduce the vulnerability of the global food system to climate-related shocks.

“On the surface, globalization of our food system balances supply and demand across different regions, provides protection against regional disturbances, and leads to a more efficient global system,” Puma said. “However, experience with other interconnected systems like the financial sector demonstrates that seemingly minor disruptions could spread rapidly, with disastrous consequences.”


Park WilliamsLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

park-williams-280x194Park Williams, a bioclimatologist and Lamont Assistant Research Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will explore the influence of climate change on droughts and wildfires. The processes that govern drought’s effects are complex and difficult to simulate with computer models that could provide a forecast. With the support from the Center for Climate and Life, Williams will use world-class observational datasets to diagnose the main drivers of changes in soil moisture, snowpack, stream flow and wildfire, and the influence that human-induced climate change has had on each. He also plans to use tree-ring records to compare recent Western U.S. droughts to the megadroughts from the 800s to 1500s that are suspected of uprooting civilizations.

“Understanding the climate-change effect on these processes is critical for resource management and planning of future policy,” Williams said. “For example, western U.S. forest-fire area has tripled since the early 1980s. Government policies toward fire-fighting and fuels treatments – forest thinning, for example – would be affected if we understood the effect of climate change on fire in the past and future.”

Learn more about our 2016 Fellows.