Take 10 with... Evan Weller

Dr Evan Weller from the School of Environment gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss his research into climate variability and projected future changes.

Dr Evan Weller, School of Environment
Dr Evan Weller, School of Environment

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Understanding observed climate variability and changes, and projected future changes.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

Through my research I aim to better understand what influences regional-scale climate from year to year, and drives many of the extreme events that have devastating impacts on society and the environment. These can include short weather events, such as heat waves or cyclones, or events that last for periods ranging seasons to years, such as droughts or above-average monsoon rainfall.

An important aspect of this research is how such events or climate factors are projected to change in the future as a response to greenhouse warming. This is likely to cause extreme events to increase in either their frequency or intensity, and what we now consider extreme events may be the new normal, even by the end of this century. We can use sophisticated methods to attribute past and future changes in high-impact climate extremes such as heat waves, droughts, and heavy rainfall to global warming, and identify the associated physical mechanisms responsible for the changes.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

I collaborate with researchers from a range of backgrounds at the University of Auckland, and at international universities and organisations. One key activity is the development and application of improved statistical techniques using available observations and climate models and experiments. It is a relatively new field, so I try to engage students into this area who have a keen interest in understanding why such extreme events happen when and where they do.

I have a growing group of research students that I spend my time with who work on projects that are focusing on the physical mechanisms of a variety of climate extremes. This includes marine and terrestrial heat waves and heavy precipitation in New Zealand and vulnerable regions throughout Asia (for example Indonesia) and the Pacific.

To build an idea of what may cause an ‘extremely unlikely’ event and how this may change in the future requires many years of observations. Unfortunately, this data is not always available or reliable. Therefore, I also work with researchers who construct climate models and run simulations that may span several hundreds of years. I apply my knowledge of ocean-atmosphere dynamics in my work, which involves a fair amount of mathematics, physics and computer coding to handle large data sets. We are trying to address some of the most pressing issues in society today, such as the importance of resources (for example water and food) and increased vulnerability with an ever-growing population.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

Extreme events remind us just how much energy is continuously moving through our climate system. For example, weather systems that form on the one side of the world can grow and have far-reaching influences in many other places. It reminds me of the butterfly effect, and that we need to apply this when thinking about how we want our future world to be. A little change now may well mean a large difference in the future.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

There are countless ways to conduct research, with many different endpoints, and the endpoint is really what shapes the research. If you are looking for academic or intellectual discovery, then your endpoint is generating new knowledge. This is often a hard and gruelling task, yet one of the most rewarding.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

In climate science, understanding the uncertainty that goes alongside your research results is very important. For example, the actions of humans are the largest unknown when it comes to future climate change. How best to deal with this is still debated. There are many different approaches and these often fall outside the realm of science research.

I approach this challenge by continuously engaging with the growing number of new researchers in this field, as they have different ideas or views and this helps the field of science progress. This may involve going out of my field of expertise by sitting in on lectures in a different faculty of the university, or attending sessions at a conference that are not in my field of research.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

How should researchers best approach their work? It is becoming popular to take a multidisciplinary approach when conducting research, as we now realise many aspects of the physical sciences are connected, and impacts cascade into various areas of society and the environment.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope that my research will provide reliable information on how the climate is likely to change in the future, and what the associated risks are for society and the environment. We can minimise some of the risk by dealing with the changing climate now rather than later. As a global population, if we continue with a 'business as usual' scenario this will only increase the risk associated with extreme events. We need to develop more sustainable and prepared societies.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Within the University, I collaborate with colleagues in the department of Physics, and in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. I also work closely with colleagues from international universities and organisations in Australia, India, and South Korea.

There are many benefits to working with a breadth of colleagues. It allows for different perspectives to be applied to the problem that is being researched, as we all have a different knowledge base or expertise. I believe this is key in producing high quality research.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Don’t spend a lot of time on something that you don’t enjoy doing or that isn’t going anywhere. This is important in many aspects of life, but applies to research as well. It took me some time to narrow down what I wanted to research, and it came back to where my interests lie - my life has always been determined by what the weather is doing!

If your idea is not working in the early years of your research, then take a different approach sooner rather than later. If the results you obtain are not what you expected, you still obtained results, and this is nevertheless a success!