Q&A: Dr. Mary-Louise Timmermans
Mary-Louise Timmermans is a researcher specializing in the dynamics and variability of the Arctic Ocean, reviewed the Arctic Ocean section in NOAA's yearly Arctic Report Card in 2020, and is the recipient of numerous fellowships. Additionally, Dr. Timmermans is a professor in The Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences at Yale. In my first semester at Yale, lacking any rigorous background in science, I took her introductory course on climate change science and came away with a much greater understanding of climate change and the work climate scientists do. As such, I interviewed Dr. Timmermans for a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a climate scientist.
Dylan Carlson Sirvent León: Can you please introduce yourself and tell me a little about your research?
Mary-Louise Timmermans: I'm a professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at Yale and have been here for almost 12 years. Before that, I was a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I'm a physical oceanographer, so I study the physics of how the oceans work. In particular, the Arctic Ocean. I mostly make measurements in the Arctic Ocean or use measurements that others have taken, and analyze them to try to understand how the Arctic Ocean is warming over time. I also look at how changes in the Arctic Ocean influence sea ice cover and reflexively, how changes in sea ice influence the Arctic Ocean -- and how both influence Arctic and global climates.
DCSL: What drew you to studying the Arctic Ocean?
MLT: I grew up in Northern Canada, in the Yukon territory, east of Alaska. So, I grew up in the high, high latitudes. We even lived in the eastern Arctic for a time when I was a kid, and so I was used to the cold polar regions. Then, when I was 15, my parents sold their house and cars and bought a boat, and we sailed around the world. I often think back to that and I think, "Oh, if only I had some sensors, I could have made measurements." It would have been amazing, but I didn't really know about measuring the oceans back then. So, I always think [with] the combination of living on the ocean and living near the Arctic, it just seemed natural. I also had a lot of good mentors who studied the Arctic.
DCSL: When did you start becoming aware of climate change?
MLT: When I first came into [the field of oceanography], I was really fascinated by the oceans and how the oceans worked, so my background was more related to the mathematics of the physics of the ocean. I pursued a PhD at Cambridge in applied math and wasn't thinking about climate change as much when I first started out. But now, studying the Arctic Ocean, I really see firsthand the influence of global warming, especially because the polar regions that I study are warming at twice the rate of the global average. This enhanced warming is called Arctic amplification. We've also seen very noticeable loss of sea ice in the recent decades. You can even look down from above the polar regions with satellites and see that the area of Arctic sea ice is declining. The oceans in the Arctic are warming because there's more open water now -- rather than water covered in sea ice -- and open water absorbs solar radiation and warms. Also warmer waters are entering the Arctic from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. So, you cannot get away from global warming and climate change if you study the Arctic.
NOAA: Arctic Report Card 2021, December 14, 2021.
DCSL: Was there a particular moment when you realized climate change would be a defining issue?
MLT: That's something that built up more gradually. For example, in 2007 when there was a very low ice year, which is now the second-lowest on record, it made headlines. People worried about the low levels of sea ice, and how we would lose our sea ice if this continued. So, there was a lot of talk in the news and focus on the Arctic that year.
But as a scientist, you feel even more skeptical about things like that because you think, "Well, it's one year. This isn't on a climate timescale." If scientists say, "Oh, we're going to lose all our sea ice in very short order," and then we don’t because it’s just interannual variability, then people might say, "Well, you don't know what you're talking about." But over time, when you look at the sea ice records you begin to appreciate that circumstances are going to have to be very unusual for [Arctic sea ice levels] to now recover.
DCSL: What have been your biggest takeaways teaching an introductory course on the science of climate change?
MLT: I guess my personal perspective is that students who haven't taken any science classes, or plan to continue in the sciences, have a great ability to grasp the fundamentals of the science. It's not like we go and solve partial differential equations and dig deep into chemical reactions and so on. But the fundamentals -- they have picked those up really well. I think that a lot of them really like learning about the scientific concepts [related to climate change]. That I find very exciting.
MLT: I worry about failure to follow through on promises and failure to set goals -- big goals. That's the biggest worry. The US needs to show leadership and commitment over a long timescale. As a major part [of causing climate change], if we can't show leadership and say what we're going to do, then it's hard to envision much happening. We need to have high goals and targets, and then we need to stick to them, and get going ASAP. That's all I can really say. Hurry up everyone, get it together.
Dr. Michalea King and John Kerry Instagram Live conversation streamed on 9/24/2020.