Featured Faculty: Tony Barnston

Photo Brian Kahn

By Nadav Gazit, Climate and Society ’13

We caught up with Tony Barnston, the head of forecast operations at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, who teaches the Climate and Society core class Quantitative Models of Climate-Sensitive Natural and Human Systems, to talk about Climate and Society, his research and more.

What does climate and society mean to you?
It means studying not only climate science for better understanding of physical climate and for making better climate forecasts, but also studying more closely the needs of users of climate information (including climate forecasts). It weights the users more heavily than if we were to just study climate itself, and results in providing information that is more easily used by those who need it.

Why did you come to the Climate and Society program?
I have always liked teaching, and in my job at IRI I was offered the opportunity to teach in the Climate and Society program. So, why not teach a subject that is interesting, such as this one?

What makes the program so unique?
To me, the most unique feature is the interdisciplinary nature of the students in the Program. It is an incredible mixture, from a wide range of undergraduate backgrounds. It makes the teaching more difficult in some ways, but more interesting.

What do you hope students take away from the program, and your class?
One of the thrills is to get students who have disliked statistics, or math in general, to like it a lot better and at least learn to use it better when needed.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
Besides doing the monthly climate forecasts for the globe, which takes up some of my time, I currently am working on the following funded projects:

  • Developing an Optimum Multimodel ENSO Prediction
  • Predictiablity of Atlantic Hurricane Activity by the National Multimodel Ensemble Coupled Models
  • Enhancing Seasonal Drought Prediction Capabilities for the US and then Globe Using the National Multi-Model Ensemble.

What are some key issues you see at the intersection of climate and society?
Communication is the key problem. Scientists and society’s policy makers have different viewpoints and even different vocabularies. They both are driven partly by differing political forces (policy makers need power and assurance of tenure of their positions, and climate scientists need visibility and enhancement of their status in order to keep funding coming in). Doing more what is best for society, and less of what matters to them personally, would help keep humans on a better track. The two groups need to trust one another more and engage in continual communication in order for them to work better with one another and, therefore, help all people. What to do about climate change is a key example in which this matters.

What’s your favorite thing to do in NYC and why?
One would be eating at restaurants, since I like eating good food. Another favorite thing would be swimming at beaches in Queens (such as Rockaway, or Breezy Point) in late summer, since I like riding waves and being at the sea.

Where’s your favorite place to travel and why?
Hawaii. They speak English (as I do), and have great beaches for all swimming tastes (calm waters, medium waves for body or board surfing, and large waves for more daring activities).

Any tips or words of wisdom for our current and potential new students?
Make sure your math background is adequate. Every year we accept a few students that are very weak in math, and they cause us, and themselves, a lot of trouble. Knowledge of algebra is absolutely necessary. (I see this problem because my course is quantitative; instructors in non-quantitative courses may think the main problem is lack of writing ability, if that is ever a problem.) Another tip is to be sure to be prepared to meet a group of really great students from a huge variety of backgrounds.

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