Climate change makes physicists aim for the sky in their career

CERN Alumnus Lee de Mora
At CERN from 2006 to 2010 dealing with Montecarlo simulations in the ATLAS Collaboration
Today: Marine Ecosystem Modeler at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (UK)

In 2015, Nature published an article whose title was “Climatologists to physicists: your planet needs you”. Indeed, it looks like the call was answered as within our budding CERN Alumni Network we have already identified a selection of members who have moved from particle physics to climate-related research. Lee de Mora is one of them. His current job title at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (UK), is Marine Ecosystem Modeler, which means that he develops complex computational models that reproduce the marine ecosystem for the UK’s Earth System Model (UKESM). Earth system models like UKESM make predictions that are subsequently used by policy makers to tackle climate change. “The idea is that we try to understand what's happening in all the different parts of the climate system,” he explains. “then, we use that scientific   understanding of the climate  to predict the future climate. These models form the basis for policy decisions, including climate change agreements, such as the Paris agreement, as well as other international policy issues, such as fisheries policies.”

Going from a particle physics experimental collaboration to working in climate change research was not part of Lee’s initial plans, but the scarcity of post-doc opportunities in particle physics made him widen his options and volunteer at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “I said I have a PhD in physics and a background in computer programming, mathematics, statistical analyses and model evaluation,” he recalls. “I worked for a few months as a volunteer and then I applied as soon as a position was available.”

Despite the difference in nature of these areas of research, climatology and physics do in fact share a lot of methodologies and also require very similar skills, including public speaking, presenting at conferences, writing papers and, of course, writing software, developing code and  building statistical evaluation tools. In other words, physicists are indeed a perfect option for research in climatology!

And just like the universe is 96% yet to be understood, a lot of work still lies ahead for climate science. “The business-as-usual scenario for our planet is catastrophic but I like to be optimistic,” says Lee. “For instance, historically it was thought that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had to be coupled with carbon emissions so that if we wanted to have a bigger economy we had to produce more pollution but since 2015 they have actually been decoupled: the global economy has grown and emissions have remained stable. I hope that emissions will even start to drop in the near future. However, we still are not taking these good news stories into account yet as the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports were published in 2013. I'm optimistic, but it is still going to take a lot of work.”

Do you think that, as CERN Alumna and oceanographer Grace C. Young says in her video interview, it would help the planet if we could have a CERN for Climate Change? “Oh that would be fantastic!” he concludes. What do you think?

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