by Rahilla C.A. Shatto
Planet Earth is currently under the influence of a climate phenomenon
that has stumped the world's climate scientists-the persistence of an El
Nino that began in 1991. The term, El Nino, refers to the warming of surface
waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, and has come to refer to
the impact of this condition on climate throughout the globe. El Nino incidents
have been intensely studied in recent years, and climate researchers thought
they understood the phenomenon sufficiently to forecast its onset and duration.
The current El Nino has substantially outlived the predictions, however,
showing that there is still much to be learned.
This comes as no surprise to the students of Dr. Benjamin S. Giese, a new assistant professor in Texas A&M oceanography. Giese was recruited and hired to TAMU as a specialist on the role of the oceans in earth's climate. During his first year he has been exploring new ways to investigate that topic and bring it into the classroom.
Giese describes teaching as the most rewarding and enjoyable aspect of his career. Last fall he taught his first graduate course, Meteorological Oceanography. He says he may have actually learned more than the students because "the process of going through the material, organizing it, discussing it and presenting it taught me a lot about the subject I am supposed to be an expert in, which is El Nino." As an educator Giese sees himself in the middle of the process of learning to teach well, and this task constitutes one of his top priorities for the next few years. He describes his current situation saying, "I feel I can develop a rapport with the students and I know what I want to teach them, but learning how to effectively communicate that information is something that one learns over a period of time."
This semester he is teaching the undergraduate honors section of Introduction to Oceanography and finds that his students are "highly motivated" and ask a lot of questions. He feels they are "genuinely interested in the ocean and the ocean system as part of climate and the world environment." Giese hopes to continue his involvement with undergraduates by offering courses that address climate issues from an undergraduate perspective. Eventually, he would also like to offer a graduate course on incorporating data into ocean and climate models.
The opportunity to teach was just one reason why Giese was drawn to Texas A&M. After obtaining his Ph.D. in 1989 and spending four years in California and Maryland doing research, he wanted "a position that involved contact with students." He also knew that the right place would need to be a university or community that could offer a career opportunity for his wife, Rachel Bramson. Bramson holds an M.D. and teaches in the TAMU College of Medicine. She also practices family medicine at Scott & White Health Clinic in College Station. Describing why he chose to join the oceanography faculty at Texas A&M, Giese says "Rachel's career is very important to me, and I think my career is very important to her as well. It was crucial to have a situation where we were both satisfied with our career choices and Texas A&M was ideally suited for that."
Talking about his experiences in education and research Giese exudes an excitement for what he calls "the mystery of oceanography" and a passion for learning. As might be expected, Giese's education extends beyond the campus limits, especially this year. Colleagues familiar with Giese's lanky gait and quick smile will have noticed a different step as he cradles his 10-week-old son, Noah, through the building in a sling over his shoulder, or the hint of fatigue that often accompanies parenting. Giese alternately beams in describing his son as "the best thing I ever did," and frowns slightly lamenting that he and his wife have been unable to take any photographs with all three family members smiling at once!
Climate modeling forms the common theme of Giese's research over the last ten years, although his various projects have approached the problem from different perspectives. How the ocean and atmosphere interact to regulate climate greatly interests Giese and his colleagues, for therein lie the clues to understanding issues of global concern such as the greenhouse effect. To examine the interaction they create coupled computer models, or models of the behavior of the atmosphere and the ocean combined so that the output of one model forms the input for the other and vice versa. Giese points out, however, that coupling computer models is a difficult and still imperfect process.
Obstacles to accurate modeling of air-sea interaction consist of the many significant elements in nature that participate in climate but are not well-represented in current models. For example, Giese points out that we scarcely understand the true role of the sun in climate, and consequently the seasonal cycle remains unexplained. He says that "in the northern latitudes it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter and we have a pretty good idea of why that is. In the tropics we don't really have that good an idea, but it's the biggest signal out there."
Giese describes the sun as the fundamental driving force of the entire climate system. In a recent publication he and a colleague, Jim Carton, attempted to find out more about the sun's effects by boldly changing its role in their climate model. What would happen to the tropical oceans, for instance, if the sun stayed directly overhead in the tropics all the time? Or if our year were six, or perhaps eighteen months long?
Giese concedes that this line of inquiry is controversial. "Some segment of our community objects to experiments like that," he says, "And I guess I would counter that what we want to understand is how the system is working based on how it is forced." Giese feels that creativity plays an important role in the investigation of scientific phenomena. He says that "people should do all things," and "should have a tremendous amount of latitude in the kinds of experiments they do." In this way scientists will be able to draw on the enormous imagination and resources available for solving the world's most troublesome problems.
In spite of this free-spirited attitude, Giese seems to be settling down for a protracted study of the puzzling fundamentals in climate research. Currently he is incorporating real observations of the ocean into established ocean models and watching what happens. Giese marvels at the power of his desktop computer which allowed him to run an ocean model that incorporated every XBT (See footnote) observation taken in the last thirty years right in his own office, a task which used to require a supercomputer. Soon he hopes to expand the data assimilation project to include satellite observations and more. By comparing model results that include observational data to those that do not he can find the models' weaknesses as well as the shortcomings of the observation systems. Part of this work will try to assess the utility of the TOGA/TAO mooring array (See footnote), for example, and ultimately the relative importance of any observation to understanding climate.
This endeavor constitutes a change from Giese's traditional research angle. While his previous modeling projects were based on climate theory, he now focuses on merging computer models with data supplied by global observing systems. The task is complicated by the fact that it synthesizes the achievements of historically divergent academic communities. Giese views himself as someone with experience in modeling and observation, standing ready to help bring the two together. He says that integration of these resources is an "issue that the modeling community and the observation community will have to face," and "we are going to have to do it together."
Giese says that he enjoys exploring new perspectives on climate research. "I started out studying coastal oceanography, tides and rivers. Then I looked at the western Pacific, and El Nino, then I looked at the seasonal cycle. What I'm doing right now [with the XBT data] has to do with the North Atlantic Ocean." These days he keeps his research options written on a blackboard for easy adjustment. "I just like learning," he says. "I like to look at different kinds of problems for different kinds of reasons. I think that makes it more interesting."
Another recently funded project will allow Giese to identify and track mesoscale eddies in the eastern Pacific Ocean near Central America. The eddies form when hurricane-force winds from the Caribbean Sea rush through mountain passes in Mexico, on the Honduras-Nicaragua border, and in Panama. In the future he hopes to try interdisciplinary modeling as well. Walking the halls of the O&M Building, he sees the satellite images of phytoplankton productivity which paper the walls around the biological oceanographers' offices. "Every time I look at those pictures I see these three mountain passes," he says, "So I know that these mesoscale eddies have some importance to biology and probably to the chemistry of the ocean."
Giese hopes to incorporate biology, chemistry, and geology into his models, both in the study of the eastern-Pacific eddies and in the data assimilation projects. Looking forward with enthusiasm, he says "there is a tremendous amount of work to be done."
Updated July 24, 1995