Interview with Dr. Eduardo Zorita, August 2011

The physicist Eduardo Zorita is a senior scientist at the Institute for Coastal Research of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, where he heads the Paleoclimate Section. In the CliSAP project PLUSDATA, he investigates the effects of climate change.

Profile Picture Eduardo Zorita

What have been the main steps in your professional life so far?
I studied  physics and completed my PhD in Solid State Physics in Saragossa (Spain) in 1988. I then moved to work as postdoc to the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg and later to the LODYC (Laboratoire d'Oceanographie Dynamique et de Climatology) in Paris. Finally, I returned to Germany to work at the GKSS Research Centre, now named Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.

What is your main contribution to CliSAP?
I have been mainly involved in the climate simulations of the past millennium and in one project of the flexible pool that analyzes long-term limnological data.

Vice versa, in what way(s) has CliSAP helped you most?
I have benefited a lot from the interaction with other disciplines within CliSAP. We have some contact with social scientists; I am also co-supervising a PhD student in limnology and I collaborate with the Max Planck Institute on the climate of the past millennium and with the University of Hamburg on issues of sea-level change. I do enjoy this multi-disciplinarity.

What do you see as CliSAP`s largest achievements so far?
CliSAP has so far set up a scaffold where different groups work towards a shared goal. This takes time and requires quite a lot of effort. It is an achievement in itself. We will soon reap the benefits.

What would you consider the most significant achievement in your career?
For the community, the main contribution I was involved in was the 'discovery' that climate reconstruction based on proxy indicators very likely provides only an underestimation of past climates. This means that past variations were probably larger than was originally believed. Privately, however, my most significant achievement was to switch from solid state physics to climate on my own, so to say, and with the help of the library, located in the 15th floor of the Geomatikum at that time.

Do you think that you are a role model for your students?
I do not think so, and actually I do not think either that it is positive for students to copy any role. Each individual is unique, has different flaws and capabilities. With luck, you can squeeze the most out of your own capabilities and correct your flaws, but it is a quite personal enterprise. Also, science lives from new ideas, original approaches. Students should be tenacious and copy no role.

What do you think is the role of science within society?
This is a difficult question, because science occurs within society. I will try to illustrate schematically my personal view. There is, or should be, a tacit contract between science and society. Science should help solve some of the solvable problems of society, and in this sense scientists do have a responsibility to advance the well-being of society. On the other hand, as a reward, society allows scientists to carry on what they really want to do, which is to play with data, concepts, theories, etc. regardless of their utility. In the ideal case, this curiosity-driven science is very productive for society, but not always. The nub is that we cannot know beforehand.

Do you see a rising influence of politics or the economy in climate science?
Yes, a bit unfortunately. Climate science fulfills many conditions to become the subject of public discussion and influence. Its results can be waged for immediate political battles of all colors, it is in many ways uncertain, it may have quite serious economic consequences, and finally, like in soccer, everyone has an opinion, since rain, temperature, sea level are all concepts of everyday life. However, to be honest, I vividly remember to have decided to move to climate science after my doctorate because I could read, already at that time, many popular articles about climate change written by climate researchers and aimed at the public in general. With this I mean that it seems to me researchers did take the initiative to address society. Therefore it is not totally surprising that society now responds. Certainly, this response has not been always very kind, but we should not forget that usually the political discussion is a hornet nest. If you decide to enter that nest you should be prepared.

What constitutes good science?
As I said before, every person and every scientist is different. For instance, some scientists work in a very systematic, detailed way to obtain very accurate measurements. This is good science. Others, on the other hand, are very disorganized, chaotic, but they have the capability to juggle with theories and concepts and see relationships that no one could see before. This is also good science. Finally, others are able to coordinate a large team of scientists in big projects. He or she may not be good at numbers or at theories but can oversee the big picture and move a team towards important results. This is also, in my eyes, good science. Perhaps all of them could be considered as different perspectives of a common effort to fill important gaps in the puzzle of science.

What would be your advice for young researchers who want to work on climate simulations?
Climate modelling is a quite broad and complex area. In my opinion, there are two dangers that a student should avoid. One is to get stuck in a daily routine of programming and launching simulations, and slowly forgetting that simulations are performed to answer some previous question. This question should be the main driver of the work, the model is just a tool. Climate models are nowadays so complex and require so much technical attention that it is easy to get off the track. The second danger is to fall in love with your model and lose sight of the real observations out there. Models are in this sense dangerous and climate models even more so.

What would you do with an additional million Euros for your research?
A million euros is nowadays not much. But to answer your question I would setup a project to understand the behavior of tropical clouds in the Late Maunder Minimum, at the height of the Little Ice Age 300 years ago, from proxy records and model simulations. This could give us hints about cloud cover changes in climates a bit different from the present and thus help us say something about the future climate change.

The interview was carried out by Prof. Dr. Hans von Storch, head of the Institute of Coastal Research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht and Jun. Prof. Dr. Mike S. Schaefer, head of the working group “Media Constructions” at the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP Hamburg.