Let's Talk with David Bromwich about Meteorology in the Poles

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Close-up photo of David Bromwich

Dave Bromwich studies meteorology in the Arctic and Antarctic, looking at how weather systems in polar areas interact with the global climate system. Dave uses computer models to investigate how changes in Antarctic climate can cause changes in climate elsewhere, such as North America. In fact, he does his research in North America–Columbus, Ohio, to be exact. Dave heads the Polar Meteorology Group at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus.

Why should kids know about Antarctica?

"The more we know about Earth and how it changes, the better prepared we'll be able to adapt to future changes. Let's look at Ohio. A good part of the state was once covered by ice. Studying Antarctica, which is now ice-covered, helps us understand the possibility that ice could advance across North America again. Understanding the role of katabatic winds in Antarctica can help us understand how they affected snowfall across the ice sheets of North America's last ice age."

How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

"If they're good stewards of our Earth, then they'll be good stewards of Antarctica! All things are interconnected. This means that all the components of the global system are linked; changes in one area cause changes in every other area. My travels have shown me the negative impact that human beings are having on the environment. Population growth and technology, such as cars, need to become balanced with what Earth can support. We must recognize and take responsibility for our impact on the global system."

Field of Study Meteorology, especially global climate change

Hometown Sydney, Australia

Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Physics, Math, Chemistry

Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Art

Interest in Middle School Soccer, cricket, golf, sailing

Interests Today With his wife, shows dogs, namely Golden Retrievers and Norfolk Terriers Life

Lessons from the Field Murphy's Law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong) is alive and well in Antarctica Recommended Reading The Home of the Blizzard by Sir Douglas Mawson

Major Influences Growing up in Australia, I always felt a close tie to Antarctica.

Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Four, starting in college

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

Dave: For one thing, it's critical to be able to predict and understand weather patterns in Antarctica, where the weather affects everything you want to do–any air, ship, or land operation. It's a matter of safety. The more we know about how the atmosphere works, the better we'll be able to predict the weather. This can help make operations in Antarctica more effective–and less expensive. If we can track weather conditions in Antarctica, we can determine if and when planes should depart from Christchurch, New Zealand to land safely at McMurdo Station. We also can determine the best places for field camps and research stations. You would NOT want to spend millions of dollars building a research station in an area that experiences intense katabatic winds! On a global level, meteorology is important everywhere because it's linked to the global system; Antarctica is part of that global system. We have to understand Antarctic meteorology to understand global meteorology–and oceanography, and ecology, and even aspects of geology. Of all the components of the global system, the atmosphere is the most linked. In other words, changes in one location of the atmosphere instantly impact other locations in the atmosphere. It only takes about a month for a change in the Antarctic meteorologic system to be "felt" in North America, and Antarctica is 8,000 miles away.

AMNH: You said, "atmosphere." How does the atmosphere relate to meteorology?

Dave: The atmosphere surrounds the Earth in several layers; meteorologists study the behavior of the lower part of the atmosphere, the troposphere, on short time scales. Meteorology is the study of our weather, which takes place in the lower part of the atmosphere. If you're going to study the weather over longer periods, you'd be a climatologist. Climatology is the study of our weather over a longer time scale, say a year or more.

AMNH: And how do you study the weather?

Dave: We do most of our work on computers, creating models of weather systems that are based on real weather data. We use computer simulations to reconstruct past climate changes; that way, we can figure out what factors contributed to the weather that actually occurred. Then we can use our understanding of past weather to predict future climate changes. Models are very powerful for this kind of work. Models allow you to simplify a system so that you can change one variable and see the potential effect of that change. In the real world it's not as easy to untangle these factors, because many parts of the system are changing at one time. We can use the models to tease apart some of the components of the system.

AMNH: What exactly is a model?

Dave: Models are simple representations of a real system, such as global atmospheric circulation. The model draws on all that we know about the system, capturing its essential physics. We can ask the model, "What happens if?" and the model computes potential answers. The human mind can't keep track of all the details, let alone come up with all the possible outcomes. But we need our human minds to look at the possible outcomes and see whether the results make sense; we can't just accept them! A model for the global climate could help us see how changes in Antarctic climate can cause changes in climate elsewhere, such as in North America. For example, we can use the model to predict cloud cover. We can ask the model what would happen if there were changes in Antarctic cloud cover, or if there were changes in the materials making up the clouds, such as liquid or frozen water. The model can tell us how those changes will affect weather all over the globe.

AMNH: And computer does everything?

Dave: Not without good field data. The models are only as strong as the observations on which they're based. Antarctica is one of the least monitored places on Earth. We always need more field data to put into our models and to test our predictions.

AMNH: So a lot had changed in meteorology?

Dave: Things have changed dramatically! Especially the technology. In the early 1980's, when I started, automatic weather stations were just getting going. Regular satellite coverage is relatively new; it started around 1987. When I first started in meteorology, we had to analyze the data by hand. To do really well and make good forecasts you needed an artistic bent to analyze pressure charts and stream lines. My artistic bent was a bit lacking. Now we've got computers to help! In fact, computer-based modeling is just coming into its own. I have to learn continuously to keep up with changes in the field. Much of what I do is driven by computers, and I have to keep up with changing hardware and software.

AMNH: What exactly is meteorology? What do you need to study to become a meteorologist?

Dave: Meteorology is applied physics of the atmosphere. You need basic, classic mechanics, like Newton's laws of motion, as well as physics, chemistry, and math, to understand how the atmosphere behaves. Of course you need geography to know where the weather is happening and you need English, since you have to be able to communicate your ideas and discoveries. A good grounding in basic subjects is always important, because things continuously change; if you have the building blocks, you can adapt. History's becoming more important too, as we interact with people from all over the world. Meteorology is not an isolated science, and science itself is very interdisciplinary. The weather drives, and is driven by, the ocean and land surface on a variety of time scales. Meteorologists not only need a basic understanding of geography, oceanography, and geology, but also to interact with researchers from other disciplines in the course of their explorations.

AMNH: What about researchers from all over the world? Is meteorology an especially international science?

Dave: Is the weather international?!! Meteorology is global, so it calls for international collaboration. All nations have a weather service (ours is the National Weather Service); and weather forecasting requires observations from around the world. Data transmissions are coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

AMNH: What kinds of oppurtunities are there for women?

Dave: Meteorology is a totally open field for women–just look at the Weather Channel! And no, those are not actors and actresses. Many have master's degrees in meteorology, and are evaluated by the American Meteorological Society.