The role of WCRP SPARC in fostering the new generation of Earth-System scientists

SPARC co-chairs, Neil Harris and Seok-Woo Son, discuss the opportunities WCRPSPARC offers for early-career researchers and tips on how to get involved.

Members of the SPARC Scientific Steering Group, activity leaders, SPARC Office members and guests of the 27th SSG meeting held in December 2019 in Boulder, USA (photo: Hans Volkert).

Neil Harris, Cranfield University, United Kingdom

I was originally trained as an atmospheric chemist doing my PhD with Sherry Rowland at UC Irvine in the 1980s. The topic was the statistical analysis of ozone trends – ozone was decreasing at the time, so it is good to see it increasing now! This work allowed me to co-chair the first SPARC report on Trends in the Vertical Distribution of Ozone which was published in 1998. I joined the University of Cambridge (UK) in 1990 to work in the European Ozone Research Coordinating Unit and my personal research has been on understanding atmospheric composition using atmospheric measurements and models. I’ve worked on the  development of robust and autonomous instruments which can measure compounds such as isoprene and dimethyl sulphide in locations, which are hard to measure in, e.g. forests. In 2016, I moved to the Cranfield University, a graduate-only university which works closely with industry. Here, I collaborate with experts who understand what is needed to implement solutions to climate change throughout society. Over the years, I have been involved in European field campaigns and in international assessment (WMO-UNEP and IPCC) initiatives which gave me a broader overview of atmospheric and climate sciences. My interest in SPARC is thus both long-standing and based on a conviction and experience that international collaboration is essential to address the global environmental challenges. It has also been a chance to be personally inspired by the different perspectives of colleagues from around the world.

Seok-Woo Son, Seoul National University, Republic of Korea

I earned a PhD degree on atmospheric jet dynamics in 2006 at the Pennsylvania State University with Prof. Sukyoung Lee but became more interested in the stratosphere and its downward coupling during the postdoc at Columbia University under the supervision of Prof. Lorenzo Polvani. After a four-year long faculty position at the McGill University (Canada), I eventually came back to Seoul National University, where I obtained B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in atmospheric science and numerical modelling. As an atmospheric dynamist, I have been working on the Hadley cell and jet dynamics, the stratospheric variability (e.g., sudden stratospheric warming, Quasi-Biennial Oscillation, and antarctic ozone variability), and the dynamical coupling between the stratosphere and the troposphere. The connection between the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation and the organized tropical convection, so-called the Madden-Julian Oscillation, is one of the major research subjects I am currently working on. Most of my research work is carried out in strong collaborations with the SPARC scientists, which encouraged me to join the SPARC scientific steering group in 2013.


What are the major scientific and societal questions SPARC addresses?

As a core project of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), SPARC coordinates international efforts to bring knowledge of the whole atmosphere, from the troposphere to the stratosphere and higher, to bear on issues regarding climate variability, change, and prediction. The scientific and societal questions of SPARC are largely grouped into three themes, namely atmospheric dynamics and predictability, chemistry and climate, and long-term records for climate understanding. All of these themes are tackled by individual SPARC activities, in collaboration with other WCRP core programs as well as many regional and international research projects.

In political terms, SPARC science supports both the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. The activities within SPARC evolve to meet new research needs. At the moment, the main societal needs on climate are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet the net-zero carbon goals and to adapt to climate change where it is most needed. SPARC encourages research to address these issues. A new SPARC science strategy is currently being developed which will be consistent with the planned evolution of the WCRP.

What are the project achievements so far? Can you share a specific highlight?

SPARC has always emphasized on making a difference and its activities have been very dynamic in nature. It is thus hard to pick the main achievements out of 18 SPARC activities. A  few strengths of SPARC that we can highlight are (a) the preparation of peer-reviewed scientific reports that delve into important issues in more depth than IPCC or WMO-UNEP assessments, (b) contribution to the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6), (c) intercomparison of the reanalysis datasets, and (d) improved understanding of sub-seasonal-to-seasonal prediction through the stratospheric processes.

The latest WMO-UNEP Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion (2018) report, prepared for the parties of the Montreal Protocol, relied heavily on the chemistry-climate model datasets produced by SPARC/IGAC Chemistry-Climate Model Initiative and observational ozone trends calculated by SPARC LOTUS activity. This report has guided policy-makers as they strengthened the provisions of the Montreal Protocol since 1985. The SOLARIS-HEPPA activity prepared solar forcing for the CMIP6, while DynVar activity launched Dynamics and Variability Model Intercomparison Project (DynVarMIP) which is an endorsed participant in the CMIP6. The S-RIP activity performed a comprehensive intercomparison of all reanalysis datasets focusing on stratospheric processes, resulting in over 50 publications. To better understand the subseasonal-to-seasonal prediction, SNAP activity attempted to identify the stratospheric sources of prediction skill. There is much more on the SPARC webpage.

What opportunities does this project offer for early career researchers?

We think that there are real opportunities for early career researchers (ECRs) as the new WCRP and SPARC plans are currently being developed. Looking forward to what is needed to address climate change, the existing trend of interdisciplinary research is likely to continue and probably accelerate. It means that there will be a need for scientists who are expert and confident in their core research and who can also work on multi-disciplinary challenges. So you will need to be open-minded or to work well in teams. SPARC is trying to do this, but success will depend on the energy and talent of the individuals involved. SPARC encourages ECRs to contact the SPARC activity leads to join the activity of their interest or even lead activities as a co-lead or scientific steering group member. SPARC also provides partial or full travel support to ECRs to participate in SPARC conferences or workshops.

Are the project outcomes (e.g. published papers, data) available as open-resource?

Yes, SPARC reports and selected datasets are available through the SPARC webpage.

What do you expect from an early career researcher contributing to your project? E.g. What skills do you look for in a candidate for this project? 

The key skills are passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn and be involved. SPARC has a number of ongoing research activities and the best way to get involved in SPARC is to choose an activity close to your expertise and directly contact the activity leaders and discuss how you would like to contribute. 

Is equity, diversity and gender-balance taken into account when selecting participants for this project?

SPARC firmly believes in maintaining the sense of community and international support that we value. Although science and expertise are important, we try to maintain racial, gender, age and geographic balance when choosing activity leaders, steering group members or co-chairs.  These factors have been deliberately taken into account in the preparation of the new WCRP and SPARC plans, as it is important to get views from a wide range of people with different backgrounds. At the moment, SPARC lacks active members from South America and Africa. The ECRs from these regions are strongly encouraged to join SPARC activities.

In these times of competition and uncertain career prospects, if there is one piece of career advice that you can give to the ECRs, what would that be?

Enjoy your research. No one can beat those who enjoy their work.

The participants were interviewed by Shipra Jain (YESS ExeCom member). The article is edited for length and clarity by the YESS Interviews Team.

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